Tickling Giants is a documentary about the incredible story of Dr. Bassem Youssef—the “Egyptian Jon Stewart”, who left his job as a heart surgeon to become a late-night comedian. His show Al Bernameg (literally “the show”) is bold for its willingness to poke fun at political figures. At the height of its three year run, thirty million people in Egypt watched each episode—almost half the country’s population. By comparison, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart averaged about two million viewers a night.
Tickling Giants follows Dr. Bassem Youssef and Egypt through the Egyptian revolution of 2011 and its aftermath. Between 2011 and 2014, Egypt went through three different political regimes. In 2011, long-time military dictator President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, and in 2012 President Mohamed Morsi was democratically elected; in 2013, Abdul Fatah al-Sisi staged a coup d’état and ousted democratically elected Morsi. Sisi eventually declared his candidacy for president in the 2014 elections and won by a landslide 96.9% of the vote. After two brief years of democracy, Egypt went back to military dictatorship.
The satirical nature of Al Bernameg ultimately led to physical threats, protests, and legal actions from Sisi’s totalitarian military government. Eventually Bassem cancelled his show due to political and pressure from the channel. Fearing that he might be put into jail, Bassem and his family fled Egypt.
Cinema Escapist writer Emily Hsiang sat down with Director Sara Taksler for an interview about Tickling Giants.
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Describe the film for us in your own words.
Tickling Giants is the story of Bassem Youssef, who’s known as the John Stewart of Egypt. At the start of the Egyptian revolution during the Arab Spring, Bassem was a doctor and just an average guy who got an opportunity to start a comedy show, which wound up being one of the biggest comedy shows on the planet. Tickling Giants is about finding creative and non-violent ways to express yourself when you see an abuse of power. Bassem saw his country in revolution, and he saw a president who was trying to diminish the power of the press, so he spoke out about it through jokes.
You were a Senior Producer at The Daily Show, which is where you met Bassem. What draws you to make a movie about Bassem?
The day I met Bassem, I was really taken by the idea that he was a doctor by day and a comedian with a huge show at night. I felt that the stakes for Bassem and his team were so much higher than for us at The Daily Show in terms of repercussions for joke-telling.
I had been thinking about doing a documentary on The Daily Show for a US comedy show leading up to an election, and the stakes for this were just so much higher. This immediately presented itself as an enhanced version of that. I also thought it was very interesting that two of the producers who were with Bassem were women. I was very curious to know what it would be like to be my counterpart as women at a comedy show in Egypt, and I just had a bunch of questions for them. We kind of just hit it off.
Bassem is like those X-Factor people where, when he walks into a room, everyone just wants to talk to him—so I figured no matter what the story might be, he’d be an interesting character.
I was surprised about how many people on Bassem’s team were women. I guess I had a preconceived notion that most of his writers would be male as Egypt seemed like a male-dominated country.
Yeah, the majority of the staff were women actually and, I too, had pre-conceived notion that it would be different. In the States, it’s still the case that most of the creative teams tend to be male. A majority of the staff would be women, but the majority creative teams would be male. Basically [on Al Bernameg] they hire based on who applied and who worked out the best. The research team were mostly women. A lot of the staff are women, and when I went into it I thought that would be part of the story I would tell.
The truth was it just didn’t seem like a big deal. Women working creatively on his show was such a non-event, that it felt like including it to any extent beyond just showing it would’ve been me injecting a story that wasn’t there. People were like “Yeah, this is where I work, this is what I do”, which was cool.
How long were you in Egypt for?
I went to Egypt a few times. I had a local crew that would film for a few times a week, which would vary based on the show’s schedule; if they had any big meetings coming up or sometimes Bassem would call us: “Network’s gonna come talk to us, I think we should have someone there this week.” I couldn’t afford to have the crew there all the time, but on a pretty regular basis we would film a few times a week.
When you started filming you were following the election, and then we had the Morsi era, which carried on to Sisi. So the movie took place in events that happened throughout three year’s time. How long did you intended to film for?
When I first started thinking about making this film in the US, I thought it would be interesting to lead that to a presidential election. In this story I originally thought it was just a hopeful story of how this show started post-revolution. I didn’t know what the storyline would be. There are a few different times where I thought the story was going to be over. When Bassem first came back on air after being kicked off by the network I thought we had our triumphant ending.
I was talking to my Director of Photography and he said “This is all going to happen in a bubble. It’s pretty much foregone conclusion that there will be the election and Sisi will win, and I think it’ll all be over then.” He kind of layer out his hypothesis and everything he said wound up to be true. “Well, we should keep filming and see where the story goes.” Because of that we kept filming other things and Bassem’s life, even when there were places where we could’ve ended the film.
We considered never screening him leaving Egypt, but it was such a huge part of his story, I didn’t want to not include that. Even now there’s a lot of interesting stories such as: Bassem’s trying to make it as a writer and performer in the United States. But there are only so many stories you can tell without diluting everything.
In our editor room there’s a big debate about whether or not anything positive came out of Bassem’s story, whether if it’s a hopeful story. That’s our big question. My feeling is always that it’s hopeful, because even though right now it sucks, people know what’s possible, and there will be some people—especially a lot of the young people—who would feel like it’s worth fighting for…to non-violently fight for it. But some other people on our team felt that it’s not hopeful, and you shouldn’t portray it as hopeful because people would still need to work to support the people in Egypt. So it becomes a balance of feeding people with hope but also saying that there’s a ton of work to be done, that work won’t happen on its own.
Do you think there is a right time for comedy?
I think there’s a right to free speech and to expression, and comedy is one way of expressing yourself. I’m not someone who believes that there are no lines, not every joke is well told or appropriate time-wise, but I believe you have the right to say it. And I have the right to say “I don’t like this.” But I don’t think it’s the job of the government to impose restrictions. In Bassem’s case, you have a government who through intimidation, eventually through censorship, kept someone from telling jokes.
In the US right now we only have open criticism. But I do think there’s a considerate effort to make people not trust the media. And I think that the criticism of comedians is a part of that job to make people feel more separated into teams. For example, Donald Trump criticizing Alec Baldwin for doing an impression of him is ridiculous. Donald Trump would look so much stronger if he had said: “You know, that was funny”, or “That wasn’t my cup of tea but whatever, just do it.” Then it’s so much easier to see respect and see leadership in that.
But if your president is threatened by jokes and not threatened by actual uses of power, things are completely out of whack. And that’s unfortunately a change happening in the US.
What is the most difficult thing about making this film and do you have a happy story to share?
The hardest part about making a movie is deciding to start and figuring out how to finish it out. You know it’s going to be a ton of work, and then it is a lot of work, and there are a lot of times you want to stop. But in terms of actual specific situations, I can think of two that stand out.
One was when we were filming someone who we ended up not including into the movie. A crew member had interviewed him for the film and I saw some footage and thought he might be interesting. I’ve heard that he might be a little off his rocker, but I thought maybe it was just bad translation. We went to his house and he immediately tried to shake us out for money and wouldn’t let us leave. This guy we were interviewing, his friend had a flip phone and were taking all these photos of us following and recording everything. It was just a weird and bizarre thing. He also had big dogs around the roof of his building where he lived, it was all really scary and I was like “What did I get myself into and what did I get my camera person into?”
We couldn’t figure out a way to leave, and the guy—in a not threatening way—just started to show us his personal memorabilia from the start of the revolution. He had a used tear gas canister and he threw it across the room, and the camera guy just started coughing and tearing up, we were very confused and nervous. Finally we got out of there.
There’s also this day of shooting when there was protesting outside—which was in the film. The day before the crew knew there was going to be protesters coming. They told the staff that they didn’t have to come in to work so I was secretly hoping that people would just not come in to work the next day, but everyone decided to go working anyways, so we had to go film. And there was palpable tension. People were nervous and speculating that someone could throw something—like an explosive—through the window… we weren’t that far from the streets. Our office was small too, so there’s no way to hide. We heard people starting to gather during the afternoon, and it became a big crowd.
A few members of the staff asks for me to not go outside because there were speculations that Bassem was a CIA agent working for the US government and they felt like seeing me—who is white and not Egyptian—validates that idea. They thought I might make it more dangerous.
Staying inside the building was pretty scary, but I couldn’t leave the building because I might make things worse. So that was a nerve-wracking day. I was shooting with the second camera that day, we went outside and I couldn’t film because my hands were shaking. I remember thinking “Oh no, none of this footage is usable!”
And then that day 60 Minutes [an American newsmagazine television program] was there filming and they shared with me their escape plan just in case if anything went wrong. Which showed me that, if 60 Minutes had security details on all these things, I was out of my league. So I was relieved once that day was done.
That sounds a little like Argo.
When Bassem’s show was cancelled for the first time, I was in Egypt at the time. I was staying with someone working for the show and she said that I should leave Egypt, because now my footage was of interest to the government. I was supposed to be leaving a day or two later, but I was very nervous going to the airport until we were in the air. By the time the show was actually finally canceled, I wasn’t in Egypt anymore.
My crew was filming and we wanted to get the hard drive out of Egypt in case something happened. A friend of a friend of someone who was working on Al Bernameg was traveling to New York. So she had a copy with her and I met her somewhere on the streets of New York to pick up the hard drives. I felt like I was doing a drug trade or something illegal, but really it was handing off a hard drive with totally legal footage.
Where is Bassem now?
Bassem lives in LA and he loves it. They were in Boston for a while, and the cold wasn’t working for them, so LA is much better. Bassem hasn’t been back [to Egypt] since that day, unfortunately. He’s been able to meet up with some friends and family in other places, but he can’t go back. He actually can’t watch the movie. He watched it once at the premiere and he’s seen tiny bits at the end for the Q&A, but it’s too hard for him to see it cause it’s all in the past for him.
What do you want people to take away from watching Tickling Giants?
I want people to take away from watching Tickling Giants that anyone can be the Bassem Youssef of their own situations.
The reason I found Bassem’s story interesting is because he was a regular person who had an extraordinary circumstance and decided to do what he could do to help. Most people aren’t going to have their country fall into revolution, although who knows how it is [laughs]. But hopefully it probably won’t happen for most of us.
There are things we can do in our own lives. Almost everybody has witnessed some sort of abuse of power or heard about it on TV, and most of the time we chose to do nothing. My hope is people start tickling giants in their own ways, figuring out the things you can do that are creative and non-violent ways to shed light on the things that are important to you.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
No, but I want some. Until December this year I was very much still working on this on getting the word out for Tickling Giants, so I was sort of in recovery mode for a while. I worked a little bit on press lately again because we submitted it for the Emmy Awards. It’s all a long shot.
But I’ve been doing some press again—this film has died down except for college screenings which I loved doing. I’m just now starting to make a list of ideas that are interesting to me—both features as well as some ideas I had of a TV show of documentaries about serious issues told in funny ways. So there’s a few different projects that appealed to me. The trick is now finding out how to be able to do them.
I think this movie came to me at a good time because after Trump was elected, watching Stephen Colbert was the only way I could cope.
Yeah I get that, I was at The Daily Show for 12 years and I found it so therapeutic when, if there’s a story that I was outraged by, or something that seemed impossible to make funny, and we would find this cathartic way to process it. It’s a coping mechanism. I think comedy is useful in at least two ways: one, you don’t feel alone. Like, oh there’s other people who feel like me.
The other is, it makes things that feel inaccessible feel a little bit more within reach. Some stories that people don’t understand or care about, if you could tell them in a funny way they might listen.
But something that is very important is that, laughing about something isn’t enough to change anything. It’s good to learn about something through comedy, but laughing about it isn’t going to actually change anything. You have to do much harder work to actually change something. Sometimes with comedy shows people felt like they’ve done their part by posting a four minute segment. That’s one thing. But if you actually care about the story you have to do more to actually change anything.
There’s a call to action segment on your website, can you tell us what it is and what you want to achieve with that?
The call to action is the idea that we should all be tickling giants in our own lives, both finding a creative way to express yourself but also finding a non-violent way to express yourself. When you’re frustrated, it’s really easier than I would have ever imagined to have the impulse to be violent. I was kind of shocked after the US election how quickly that sentiment rose to the surface. Where people felt so different from the people who voted differently than they did, that it’s not that hard to conceive of a violent outcome.
Also realizing that we’re all just animals—when we’re uncomfortable things could escalate really quickly. So finding a way that’s not violent to be heard and to allow others to be heard is really difficult. In the US we had Charlottesville last year, it’s extreme violence and it’s really easy to see how the response to that might be equal or greater violence. That kind of violence might feel like a great option, but looking from the bigger picture of what you want your society to value and what you want your society to be like, it’s not.
So the call to action in Tickling Giants is to think about creative, non-violent ways to stop the abuses of power.
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Tickling Giants premiered in Taiwan at the 1905 International Human Rights Film Festival. Tickling Giants is now available for streaming on the Tickling Giants Official website. You can also check out their screening page for screenings near you.
This interview was edited for clarity.