Kelvin Tan reviews Sara Taksler’s documentary Tickling Giants, which centres on a comedian’s powerful response to the Arab Spring.

Amidst the violence and unrest in the wake of the Arab Spring, one man sought to use humour to criticise and to unite. Taking place in an Egypt in the grip of political turmoil, Sara Taksler’s aptly named documentary Tickling Giants tells the story of Dr Bassem Youssef, a former heart surgeon turned talk-show host, known as the ‘Jon Stewart of Egypt’.

Bassem’s beginnings as a celebrity began in 2011, during the initial sparks of the Arab Spring. Seeking to take advantage of his medical training, Bassem personally went down to Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the conflict, to provide first aid and medical attention. However, as he sought to treat the injured, he was exposed to the true nature of the protests, in stark contrast to the lies being told by the state-controlled media.

In response, Bassem and a friend started up their own podcast, using parody to dissect the news and to criticise the government. Despite their initial modest intentions, it took off beyond their wildest dreams, and they managed to garner 35,000 views in a single day. Subsequently, Bassem was approached by CBC, an Egyptian broadcasting channel, to be the host of a satirical talk show simply titled The Show. Bassem then decided to quit his medical career, and to become a full-time comedian.

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Post-Mubarak, Bassem’s show continued to grow in popularity, as he continued to deliver his trademark scalding witticisms. At one point, The Show reached an audience of 30 million; in comparison, the original Jon Stewart’s ‘The Daily Show’ reached only 2 million viewers at its peak. However, as he continued to poke fun at politicians and current events, the various authorities tired of him, and warrants were even issued for his arrest.

Throughout the film, as Egyptian political figures come and go, Bassem’s jokes and quips remain a constant. However, in the wake of the 2013 military coup which led to President El-Sisi’s rise to power, far greater pressure was placed on outspoken individuals, with thousands of journalists and activists being jailed. El-Sisi was of a different breed than previous Egyptian politicians, paradoxically managing to both be more popular and more ruthless than his predecessors.

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Even as The Show tries to remain a free voice, due to El-Sisi’s greater public support, Bassem and his team received a far more mixed response than they had under previous leaders. While crowds gather in support of Bassem and his antics, mobs simultaneously throng the streets to call for his execution. Governmental pressure also increases greatly, with The Show being forced to change broadcasting networks, and the father of one of Bassem’s friends being arrested despite there being no official charge.

Despite this, Bassem refuses to tone down his honesty or to be censored. As Bassem aptly put it, ‘The Show is about holding authority accountable’. In sharp contrast with the West, where political satire shows are a dime a dozen, such shows were previously unheard of in the Middle East, and Bassem’s show was a historical first for Egypt. He knew that The Show was about something much larger than mere comedy or satire: it strove to show that no figure or authority could ever become as immune to criticism as Mubarak had been, and that nobody would be able to silence the Egyptian people ever again.

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However, in spite of the best efforts of Bassem and his team, governmental pressure eventually became too much for The Show to handle. As the show was cancelled, Bassem was sued by his previous broadcasting network, and unprecedented damages of over one million pounds were awarded to them. Facing the risk of jail and potential harm to his family and not seeking to become a martyr for his cause, Bassem was left with no choice but to flee Egypt. However, even from abroad, Bassem continues to campaign against the authoritarian rule of President El-Sisi, and hopes to return one day

Overall, Tickling Giants is a political commentary which will likely withstand the test of time. In an age where the President of the most powerful country in the world blatantly lies through his teeth, the film seems even more chillingly relevant. However, Tickling Giants also shows us the way to combat the lies of those in power –not by treating them seriously or by analysing them logically, but by poking fun at them, and exposing them as the clowns they are.

Despite the generally melancholy mood and background of the film, Bassem’s witticisms as well as humorous animations prevent it from dragging or becoming repetitive. As a whole, Tickling Giants strikes a good balance between informing viewers about Bassem’s life and the tragic political climate of Egypt, serving as both a cautionary but hopeful tale.  As one supporter notes during the film, Bassem taught the Egyptian people about democracy. Although The Show might be no more, Bassem certainly left behind fertile ground for future visionaries like himself, and for belief in a return to better times.


Tickling Giants was released in the UK on 15 March 2017

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CategoriesFilm Kelvin Tan