Bassem Youssef has been called the “Egyptian Jon Stewart” for his popular brand of political satire. In a country where journalists are routinely jailed, or mysteriously go missing, for exercising free speech, the surgeon turned televised comedian is truly one of a kind. As Youssef points out in Sara Taksler’s charming and poignant documentary Tickling Giants, he uses sarcasm to “cut through people’s façade without shedding any blood.” Sarcasm may help Youssef and his fans decipher the political rhetoric, but it clearly does not sit well with a regime who rules with an iron fist.
Taksler’s film highlights what can happen when one’s rights are systematically taken away. Having spent 30 years under the dictatorship of President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians thought that democracy was finally upon them when he left office. Television regulations loosened and people where able to speak more freely about their political and religious views. This was one of the reasons that Youssef’s program, entitled “The Show,” was able to gain a quick and loyal following. He was able to voice, in an accessible way, what thousands of people where thinking. However, the country soon realized that this type of freedom was short lived as they inadvertently traded one dictator for another with the election of President Mohamed Morsi.
Under President Morsi, and eventually his successor President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, journalists and entertainers who dare to speak ill of the government faced, and continue to face, serious repercussions.
Through its effective blend of humour, heart and insight, Tickling Giants captures the turbulent climate in Egypt and why satirical voices like Youssef’s are so important. From its cheeky opening, which warns that the side effects for speaking against regimes include headaches and loss of constitutional rights, the film cautions the viewer about the dangers of having a government who makes it their mission to silence the media.
Some of the most captivating moments in the film come when Youssef is reminded of the serious jeopardy that he puts himself and his family in with each show he does. This point hits home in a scene where Taksler juxtaposes a Youssef’s staff celebrating a colleague’s birthday with the chilling image of a large crowd of President el-Sisi supporters, standing outside of The Show’s office building, chanting “kill him.”
While Youssef’s sly humour never wanes, Tickling Giants reminds us that freedom of speech can often come at a steep price.
This review was originally published as part of our Human Rights Watch Film Festival coverage. The film opens today at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.