By ESTEFANIA MARTINEZ
On Nov. 2, 2017, a screening of “Tickling Giants,” sponsored by the Committee to Protect Journalists, was held at the Independent Film Channel Center in Downtown Manhattan. The movie focuses on the life of Bassem Youssef, also known as the “Jon Stewart of Egypt.” It recounts Youssef’s journey as a comedian in Egypt during a totalitarian regime. The screening was hosted by Jordan Klepper, who later joined Youssef and Sara Taksler, the director of the film, for a Q&A session.
Before “Tickling Giants,” Taksler worked as a producer on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” and she currently produces for “The Opposition with Jordan Klepper.” Already a talented producer, she decided to venture into directing and writing the first day she met Youssef, a former doctor-turned-comedian. She was so excited about the idea that, during their first meeting, she proposed a movie. At this point, Youssef had not been called into the Egyptian courts, so she did not know how impactful the movie would eventually become or the issues it would end up addressing.
“It was a few things. One was a few months before I met Bassem, one of my friends passed away, and it was a rough period for me. You know when you go through something like that, you get depressed. When I met Bassem, it was the first time I was excited about something. And I was at a point that whatever it was that made me happy, I wanted to go towards that feeling. I knew it wasn’t a light decision,” said Taksler while explaining all of the emotions she felt when meeting Youssef. She continued, “I loved the idea that what Bassem was doing at work was the same thing I was doing, but at much higher stakes. I think “Tickling Giants” is about finding your own nonviolent and creative way to fight an abusive power.”
During the Q&A session, Youssef admitted that it was difficult to for him to watch the film. He first saw it at the Tribeca Film Festival and has since been unable to sit through the entire movie, as it recounts harsh personal details about the end of his career in Egypt.
“I have to be honest, I can’t watch the movie because it is such an emotional experience, so every time we have a screening, I have to wait outside or be on the other side of town and just come to the panel,” explained Youssef. “When I watched it for the first time, there is one scene where there are people cursing and shouting at me outside and inside; we are celebrating a birthday party.”
For Youssef, film is a form of escapism. He continued, “You know, I didn’t have a preview of what the movie would look like. Sara did a wonderful job pulling the story together, and I forgot that, but it was representative of all of what we’re doing. The whole world was falling apart, and we were trying to live in our parallel universe writing comedy.”
The film was emotional; the audience laughed, cried and gasped as Youssef’s story unfolded. “Tickling Giants,” however, was also an effective commentary on the struggles that Egypt is facing: censorship and an authoritarian regime. The film progresses through four seasons of “The Show.” Midway, Youssef’s first network drops him, as there is growing resentment in Egypt towards his unorthodox views of the government. Nevertheless, the comedy show is picked up by another network and Youssef continues, but there are even more prevalent tensions, especially with the rise of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as the Egyptian president. Characterized as a military, old-fashioned man, el-Sisi felt that the media should not be conveying dislike towards the government. Youssef expressed his dislike of the president many times and cites him as a retrogression in Egyptian culture and democracy. In the end, it was el-Sisi’s administration that shut down “The Show.”
“When it comes to oppression, we are very creative,” Youssef said.
Fueled by the el-Sisi administration, more and more protesters began showing up outside of “The Show,” and Youssef and his staff began to face more struggles. During one of the tapings, the network experienced a jamming during “The Show.” The movie implies that el-Sisi ordered this jamming and it was not just a rogue hacker. This is where the film takes an even more negative tone. The general ideology and emerging hatred in Egypt led Youssef to feel vulnerable and scared for his, his staff’s and his family’s lives. Not only does he shut down “The Show,” but he also has to face the Egyptian legal system after his old network sues him for millions of dollars. Youssef realizes that he cannot remain in Egypt and flees to the United States with his family.
Since then, Youssef has been honored by several organizations and will be starting a one-man show tour across the United States. When asked about continuing “The Show,” Youssef answered that since he is no longer in Egypt, he would feel disingenuous sharing his feelings on the state of Egypt. Instead, he is working on other projects on top of his one-man show, including a pilot for a TV show and promoting “Tickling Giants” with Sara Taksler across the country.
Featured image courtesy of Estefania Martinez.