CAPSULE: Dr. Bassem Youssef was a heart surgeon in Cairo who was fascinated by ‘The Daily Show’ and its host Jon Stewart. He quit medicine and started his own satirical daily show, patterning himself after Stewart, but in a country where extremists can be deadly. This documentary, heavily laced with humour and satire, tells the story of Youssef and his send-up show(s) under three dangerous and autocratic presidents of Egypt. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10.
Back in 2011, Egypt’s Arab Spring protests against the country’s then-President Hosni Mubarak managed to depose him. The days following deposing Mubarak were heady times for Egyptians. The protest, largely waged by youth, had overcome the corrupt regime, toppling its most powerful man. About the same time one Dr. Bassem Youssef had been making humorous short films for YouTube. It was a dangerous pastime, but Youssef thought he might be able to get away with it. He was taking his chances. His films poked fun at a number of political targets including President Hosni Mubarak himself. His little satirical jabs were very popular on-line. They were so popular that Youssef, still then a heart surgeon, decided to take a risky course for his life. In the good feeling following the fall of Mubarak, he gave up a profitable career in medicine to become a full-time comedian and offered to do a TV show of political satire, much like Jon Stewart’s program on American TV, ‘The Daily Show’. Youssef much admired ‘The Daily Show’ and very much borrowed its format. Somewhat modelling himself after Stewart, he created and wrote for the Egyptian TV show ‘The Show’. With humour that could easily have gotten him into deep trouble with the government and could even have gotten him murdered, he nonetheless poked his barbs at the Mubarak regime. The Arab Spring became an epic struggle in itself but, in the end, Mubarak was forced to resign, his regime was deposed and Mohamed Morsi replaced Mubarak as president.
Despite expectations, Mohamed Morsi proved to be no better a president than Mubarak, allowing himself to be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. ‘Tickling Giants’ chronicles Youssef’s humour and the politics of Egypt through three presidents, each a tyrant. Youssef seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of humour jabs and like Jon Stewart was willing to unleash that humour on the government. His popularity was huge. Youssef was one of the most recognised personalities in the country. He formed a fast friendship with Jon Stewart and each appeared on the other’s program. By this point, Youssef was so popular in his country that the government could not squelch him. In a country where life is cheap for those opposing the government, he continued to do his thing and became a great believer in the power of a sense of humour to give strength, even while being accused of insulting the government’s people and institutions.
The documentary ‘Tickling Giants’ was produced, written and directed by Sara Taksler and it is laced with Youssef’s humour. It tells dangerous episodes in Youssef’s history and some of the humorous ones. More importantly, it gives us a look at Egyptian politics at a high level.
The main point being driven home is that the right to satirise government is one of the most important freedoms. The viewer is shown what it can do and, perhaps as importantly, what it cannot do. This documentary juxtaposes humour with tragedy even as Youssef himself does. I rate the documentary a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10. ‘Tickling Giants’ had a limited release March 15.
Mark R. Leeper
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