“This film may not be suitable for all viewers; if you are a dictator please leave now.”
It is 2011 and in the wake of the Arab uprisings, a heart surgeon leaves his day job to become a comedian, poking fun at politics after deeming the mainstream media weak and irresponsible.
In many moments that will make you laugh and think, Tickling Giants tells the bittersweet story of revolutionary Egypt by documenting the rise and fall of the political satirist Bassem Youssef and his show Al Bernameg (The Show).
The doctor who treats protestors’ wounds in Tahir Square quickly sees the difference between what is happening in the streets and what the media is portraying, and begins shooting a political comedy show from his laundry room. It becomes an immediate hit, gaining 35,000 viewers on the first day, catapulting him to stardom as the ‘Egyptian Jon Stewart’.
But the rising fame brings arrests, intimidation, and a £100 million lawsuit in a reflection of Egypt’s battle for freedom of expression – which eventually is lost.
Sara Taksler does well to expose the unglamorous circumstances behind the scenes as Bassem and his team of creatives struggle to hold a transitioning dictatorship to account while maintaining their comical and witty characters. One scene captures the humour amongst the chaos; Al Bernameg’s studio is surrounded by protestors shouting, “the revolutionaries will kill Bassem!”
“He insults the people!”
Bassem, watching them from the window turns away laughing, and says, “so funny.”
That being said, it’s clear that after four years of filming and interviews, Bassem’s humour is gradually wearing thin. Threats and oppression seem never-ending, and fear grows for the safety of his family and colleagues. In one interview, Bassem asks if it is still worth it.
The turbulent mood of society is echoed by the changing Al Bernameg support base during its few years on air. While fans even accompany Bassem to the courtroom when he faces trial for insulting President Mohammed Morsi (or as Bassem calls him – our version of George Bush), public opinion soon divides during a military takeover and just after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is elected, Bassem announces the show is over, or as he tells disappointed fans, “asleep for now”.
After one year of President Sisi being in power, Egypt became the second biggest jailer of journalists worldwide, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The former military general continues to be criticised for escalating human rights abuses. Last month, ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak walked free as he was cleared of conspiracy to kill protestors in the 18-day revolt that toppled his rule and left almost 850 people dead in 2011.
A mix of animations, interviews, backstage footage, and archive material is cleverly pulled together to make for an inspiring watch which puts all the emotion – and comedy – into context. Bassem initially said, “When you laugh at authority, it’s hard to be scared anymore.” The trouble is, society stopped laughing, and Tickling Giants leaves you with the feeling that Egypt’s democracy is asleep for now too.
Tickling Giants is being screened at DocHouse, the UK’s first cinema dedicated to documentaries, at the Bloomsbury Curzon, London, weekdays only, to Thursday 13th April.
Thumbnail image: Google
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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