Although Bassem Youssef’s talk show came to an end last year, his moment in the spotlight was far from over. After leaving Egypt amidst governmental pressure that resulted in the cancellation of his controversial satire show Al Bernameg, Youssef remained busy through his many ventures. He began a fellowship with Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, was featured in big-name journals such as TIME Magazine, and most recently, won the Silver Medal for Best TV Host in the World at the 2015 New York Festivals, to name a few.
Before the fame and recognition, Youssef caught the attention of Sara Taksler, a senior producer at The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. They met while he visited the set in New York to make observations before launching his own show, when Taksler approached Youssef with an idea to direct a documentary about him. Now, they are preparing to complete Tickling Giants, a biopic about his life and career as a political satirist. To produce the film, Taksler has partnered with Maziar Bahari, world-renowned reporter and writer of Then They Came For Me, the memoir on which Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, Rosewater, was based. The film is also set to feature “key staff members” of Al Bernameg, revolutionary women and writers, and more.
In an interview with Sara Taksler, we found out more about her thoughts on Tickling Giants, political satire, and filming in Egypt.
In 2012, when Taksler and Youssef first met, Al Bernameg had not yet aired and no one could imagine the massive popularity and influence he would soon have in Egypt and around the world. She approached him with the idea of making a documentary about him almost right away. “I wasn’t planning on making another film until the day I met Bassem,” she said, “The idea of a surgeon turned comedian was interesting to me.” She had previously made another documentary with her friend Naomi Greenfield called TWISTED: A Balloonamentary, so she was not new to directing. When asked what inspired her to make a movie about Youssef, someone relatively unknown in the U.S. at the time, she explained, “Bassem didn’t have his live show yet, so I didn’t realize what a phenomenon he would become, but I love satire and I was inspired that he and his team were working under such incredibly high stakes.” Soon after, they began filming Tickling Giants.
Taksler first visited Egypt in 2013 to film parts of Tickling Giants, which she and her team did in secret due to the tension surrounding freedom of speech during the ousting of the former Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government. Taksler and her crew did encounter some aggression from opposing individuals while videotaping throughout Cairo, such as one instance where one of their Egyptian cameramen was beat up and had his memory card stolen for filming at a viewing party. She recalled, “Some people were skeptical of the filming, but I got it because there was a lot of tension in Egypt. Some people thought that because we were filming we have some strong feeling for or against the government, but this film isn’t for or against any individual, it’s just pro-free speech.” As an American visiting Egypt for the first time, however, she said, “I had a great experience in Egypt! I found people to be very welcoming and have a great sense of humor.”
Tickling Giants is set to discuss Bassem Youssef’s life and career as a political satirist. We asked Taksler what she aims to achieve with the film, to which she replied, “One of my hopes is that Western audiences will see how relatable the people in the film are- [there are] similar ideas, hopes, and personalities. I would like it if people see this film and feel more optimistic about what people have in common.” In the current environment following the Charlie Hebdo massacre, unity in the struggle for free speech is crucial, but results in opposition, cultural clashes, even violence. Taksler feels that “Regardless of political views, it’s pretty easy for reasonable people to agree that no one should be physically harmed for making a joke.” She hopes to combat these issues and misconceptions through one of Egypt’s most beloved public figures of this generation- Bassem Youssef.
Tickling Giants is expected to be released in 2016. You can view the trailer here.