When director Sara Taksler began working on “Tickling Giants” in 2012, she had no idea how close to home the subject of the documentary would hit once it was released in 2017.
“Tickling Giants,” which was released online on June 13, follows Egyptian political satirist Dr. Bassem Youssef in his quest to use satire to combat a politically corrupt presidency. In both press releases and on the film’s website, Taksler describes the film as a cautionary tale that warns against what can happen when leaders go unchecked and attempt to strip the press of its freedoms.
Taksler, a senior producer for “The Daily Show,” became interested in Youssef when he and a few of his producers visited the set in 2012. Youssef, commonly referred to as the Egyptian Jon Stewart, was there to observe his satirical counterpart host of “The Daily Show.” This was shortly before his own political comedy show “Al Bernameg” went live before a studio audience in Cairo.
Taksler asked Youssef that same day if she could film a documentary about him and his new show after realizing how high the stakes were for the “Al Bernameg” producers. Political satire is not received in Egypt in the same that it is in America; rather, “Al Bernameg,” which was the first satirical political show to ever debut in Egypt, made Youssef a target of protests and government pushback.
Youssef agreed to the documentary, and, although she was nervous, Taksler was ready to start working on what would become “Tickling Giants.”
In an email interview with ivoh, Taksler told ivoh mentioned that during her time filming in Egypt, she had to be very watchful. “I’m white and a woman, and I was traveling alone—that combination made me stick out. I needed to be a bit more cautious,” she said. “One day, when there were protests at Bassem’s studio, they asked me to go inside and let a cameraman shoot alone. His staff was worried that my presence might incite the crowd and lend credibility to rumors that Bassem was an American spy.”
Taksler worked for years on the documentary, making multiple trips to Egypt. Now that it’s out, Taksler noted that, for her, the most important thing to do is use “Tickling Giants” to showcase the type of people being affected by the proposed Muslim bans: normal people with average lives, not terroristic monsters. Taksler and her team have even created a social media campaign called “Meet a Muslim at the Movies” to further this idea; viewers are encouraged to go as big as organizing a community screening and discussion, and as a small as having a few friends over to talk about the film. As long as a conversation has been started, the campaign has completed its mission.
“I grew up around Muslims, but lots of people have never had the opportunity to know a Muslim person,” Taksler said. “Bassem is the type of funny, smart, ordinary person who had to leave his country because he wasn’t safe.”
The idea of humanizing a group of ostracized people is not a new one. “In the 80’s, there was some talk that Oprah was a lot of American’s first ‘black friend,’” Taksler said. “Learning about her on TV made her feel like someone people knew.” Taksler acknowledged that, while this didn’t end racism in America, it was a step in that direction. “People invited Oprah into their homes and that was a step towards being more open to people who looked different.”
Taksler sees “Tickling Giants” following a similar path. “Bassem is a really easy first step towards not being scared of Middle Easterners as a whole,” she said.
For Taksler, it’s been interesting to see the way Americans have reacted to her film. Because most U.S. citizens aren’t well versed in Egyptian politics, they absorb the film completely unbiased. Their only horse in the race is, in true American fashion, freedom of expression.
“ makes it easier to look at the issue of free speech,” she said. “And people at our screenings, from red states, like Texas, Missouri and Georgia, to more liberal places like New York and Massachusetts, have all been very open after the film.” Taksler said that she feels ‘Tickling Giants’ serves as a warning for what can happen to a country if more importance isn’t placed on demanding a free media.
Perhaps this sentiment, aligned with the United States’ current political state, is one of the reasons why “Tickling Giants” has been received so positively. The film has a perfect rating on the movie reviewing site Rotten Tomatoes, and has been screened at more than 20 film festivals (both nationally and internationally) and at colleges across the country.
The film stands strong on its own. Youssef, charismatic and charming, is the perfect protagonist—heart surgeon by day, TV host by night, the voice of the Egyptian people. Taksler even admits that it’s the stuff of screenwriters’ fantasies. But add in a viewing audience who routinely wakes to find news stories with headlines like “The Trump Family Turns to Bashing CNN, ‘Fake News’ Media as Russian Scandal Develops,” and the film becomes that much more relevant. It’s more than just a documentary; it’s a wakeup call.
“The whole point is to start a dialogue with people who may not initially agree with me,” Taksler said. Those people include Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign employees (one of whom made contact with Taksler to sing praise for “Tickling Giants”) and the Koch network, which asked to screen the film.
“As a liberal from New York City, I certainly didn’t predict that the movie would be a hit with these audiences,” Taksler said. “It’s really been heartening to see that the message is getting across to different people, regardless of party lines.”
“Tickling Giants” also comes with another important message: sometimes, humor can be a powerful way to incite change. In a press release sent to ivoh, Youssef said he hopes that the film reaches a global audience so that people everywhere can see how satire and humor can be used to speak the truth and to make a point.
“When you live in fear, when you’re afraid all the time, you can’t think. You blindly follow the dominant narrative, believe the propaganda, and censor out every kind of common sense or logic that you have,” Youssef said. “But when you laugh, when you see the humor, speak the humor, and satirize, you can’t be afraid anymore. When you are laughing, you are no longer afraid.”