“Please use caution when trying any techniques used in this movie”. A warning we have seen many a time. What follows makes Tickling Giants what it is. “Speaking out against oppressive regimes may cause side effects such as … loss of appetite, loss of sleep, loss of home, loss of friends, loss of constitutionally guaranteed rights, death, and vaginal dryness,” read the opening lines of the documentary.
Through laughter and tears alike, Daily Show producer Sara Taksler takes us on a ride from dream come true to dream crushed below military boots. The documentary chronicles the three year journey of new satire program Al-Bernameg, the first in the Middle East to get an American-style live studio audience. Beginning just like Egypt’s new era in Tahrir Square, Egyptian heart surgeon-turned-political satirist Bassem Youssef is seen walking among protesters from a wide range of social backgrounds. As they get attacked by security forces, a man screams into the microphone against the military and police. From there, the two hour film gives a taste of the successive regimes that ruled Egypt, up until military general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ascended the presidency throne.
The film combines footage from Cairo’s streets, interviews with Youssef and the team behind Al-Bernameg, highlights of the show handling different events, as well as a brilliant use of animation. Illustrator Andeel’s hero is a feather. A cartoon of a tiny Youssef tickling the giant, hairy foot of a dictator about to stomp on him with the feather informs the documentary title. As the Egyptian revolution unfolds, a dirty feather flies from Tunisia and falls next to Youssef, who picks it and removes the dirt, making it a “clean slate”. Modeling himself on Jon Stewart, Youssef’s show tickled the post-January 2011 rhetoric of political and Islamist figures. He does the show until he cannot anymore.
Jokes about hummus and jews attest to the film being geared towards Western consumption. So was the choice to air it on Netflix. To such an audience, the film is an eye-opener. It speaks to freedom of expression and political pressure in Egypt under different rulers. As the regimes get more authoritarian, the music tenses up. The first half handles three regimes. As three-decade dictator Hosni Mubarak is toppled, the mood is chirpy as Youssef narrates, “Finally everyone will have a free voice.” Appalled by how media operates in his country, brainwashing the people and inciting hate, Youssef decides to try to change the public dialogue. Every Friday night, families would gather at home and chairs would line up at cafés to watch the comedian bring democracy in his own way. In 2012, an Islamist government took charge. Al-Bernameg made sure clerics saying absurd things like “we finally have a president with a beard” did not go unnoticed. Political, sexual, and religious taboos were all broken on air. The fresh breeze of media freedoms was unprecedented.
The Public Fights Back
Come the military coup and the ousting of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohammed Morsi. State media oiled up its vigorous propaganda machine. People rallied behind Sisi. So did the private media oligopolies. Al-Bernameg had to jump to a non-Egyptian network after Youssef was told to practice self-censorship and stop making fun of authority. The second half of the documentary describes Sisi’s rise to power, as the humorous language turns darker, and the mood gets gloomier. An animation of a military tank crushing TV sets and newspapers, then aiming at Youssef’s feather.
The film’s analogy between the Mubarak and Sisi eras hones the recession of Egypt’s uprising.
Votes for Mubarak went up to 98 percent; Sisi got almost 97 percent. A list of oppressive practices Mubarak used to curb freedom of speech annuls a belief prevalent among certain circles that conditions were perfectly fine before the revolution. “People were harmed just for speaking their minds,” Youssef says. Al-Sisi is none the better. Sisi is more hard-line than Mubarak. Dozens of journalists are behind bars. Repressive laws have been passed. A cartoon of a gigantic Sisi statue replacing the Mubarak one on top of the pyramids seals the deal.
“Tickling Giants has elicited many strong responses. people seem to react strongly to the idea that free speech and free expression are worth fighting for,” Taksler said in an interview with Egyptian Streets. Viewership of the show meteored to 30 million, making it the most blockbuster TV program in the nation’s history.
While the film mainly mirrors violation of freedom of expression, an important point it highlights is how much the public fights back, vividly through two cases. Upon mocking Morsi for a ceremonial hat he wore while receiving an honorary doctorate, the prosecutor general issued a warrant for Youssef’s arrest for “insulting Islam”. The people resisted to the extent of protesting. “So what he is using satire to express his opinion… to represent us!,” they shouted. The court refused to cancel the show. Only one episode after Sisi replaced Morsi, the tides turned. Public opinion denounced “making fun of a leader”, and “disrespecting the people”, describing the time unsuitable for criticism. A case was filed to military prosecution for “offending the Egyptian entity and ridiculing its people and statesmen”. The people protested again, this time against him, even though he was doing what he had always done. Taksler highlights that “Good satire will call out abuses, regardless of what party or individual is in charge. Satire can be a force for good, as viewers learn about hypocrisies. but i think it is up to viewers to make real change”, Takser noted. Youssef sums it up on screen: “There is no way a Giant can crush people unless they let him do that”.
Glorification and Orientalist Leanings
The documentary, however, overglorified Youssef’ stardom. He himself criticizes people’s adoration of leaders that transform them into “pharaoh’s”. Lines like “everybody was talking about him”, “stopping the show was a loss for Egypt”, and “People either love me to death, or hate me to death” were unnecessary. Tickling Giants also ignores the role of others, like TV channel Al-Jazeera, in changing Egypt’s media landscape. Another scene Taksler could have done without is of one of Al-Bernameg’s researchers after having taken off the hijab, the Muslim headscarf, saying that many girls are taking it off after Morsi was ousted. Not only is it out of place, but it also feeds an orientalist view of both the headscarf and the Muslim Brotherhood’s reign. In addition, too big a portion of the documentary is dedicated to Youssef’s relationship with Stewart. The documentary’s nearly two hours could have been tightened; the pace slows down towards the third quarter.
The arrest of the father of Al-Bernameg’s co-director’s should have been given a wider context. Although the move was to pressure the show, it is not uncommon. Constant fear for safety is the punishment for being outspoken against atrocities. As many as 60 thousand Egyptian dissident voices have been jailed in the past years, according to human rights groups. It was indeed security concerns that put an end to Youssef’s career in his country. He had to escape a fictitious charge by his former network, which was probably regime prompted.
The end is a slap on the face, a reminder of having tasted the relish of freedom, then stripped of it. Shots of Youssef and his teammates crying as they clear the studio and hug goodbye are painful to watch. The documentary had begun with scenes from everyday Egypt, a man driving on a motorcycle, a seller handing bread on the street, public transportation buses on the move, and people walking by. The same scenes are shown, but in reverse. We are back to the start.
Tickling Giants remarkably documents the rise and decline of the Egyptian revolution vis-a-vis media freedom. Matters did get worse after its release in April 2014, and the use of religion in politics continues without the Islamist regime that Egyptians dreaded. With the recent arrest of Islam al-Refaei “5orm”, a social media activist known for his profane posts, it is evident that jokes continue to scare the regime. The documentary closes with the tiny cartoon of Youssef appearing from a TV with a bad signal, his hand extending the feather to the audience. The signal is cut, the feather falls, and an anonymous hand picks it up. Youssef is out of the picture, but in the hardest of times, sarcasm is where Egyptians find salvation.