Film Review: Tickling Giants

The tale of “Egypt’s Jon Stewart” makes for an engaging modern-history lesson.
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Documentarian Sara Taksler first met Bassem Youssef in 2012 when the Egyptian comedian visited “The Daily Show,” where Taksler was then working as a senior producer. Youssef, a former surgeon who had gained notoriety as a YouTuber who poked fun at current events, was the host of political satire series “Al Bernameg” (“The Show”) and had brought with him two female producers who attracted Taksler’s notice.

“I was really curious what it would be like to be my counterpart in Egypt,” she later told Indiewire. So Taksler followed her personal interest to a country Americans were discouraged from visiting, as one does, and ended up catching on film and in real time the explosion of Youssef as a cultural phenomenon, as well as the implosion of a revolutionary movement and a regime.

Tickling Giants uses the tried-and-true technique of following a personal thread to trace the course of much larger events. We watch Youssef as he films “Al Bernameg”: mugging for the camera, making poop jokes, wearing silly costumes, and winning the hearts of millions. We’re told that at its zenith “Al Bernameg” attracted 30 million viewers, or 40% of the population. To compare, Youssef’s model, Jon Stewart, and his “Show” “only” ever garnered an average of two million viewers.

All the while, Egypt was heaving and bucking. For anyone unfamiliar with Egyptian politics, Giants is a helpful primer: In 2011, the year of “Al Bernameg”’s first season, 30-year dictator Hosni Mubarak was deposed following the events of the Arab Spring. The country in its first free presidential election voted Mohammed Morsi into office. But Morsi soon began displaying despotic tendencies of his own, gifting himself the power to change the constitution and the like, and so, while claiming publicly (“public” in the sense of public relations) to be acting for the benefit of a disgruntled populace, Morsi’s top general, the polarizing Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, seized power. Sisi would later “run” for president himself, winning a supposed 96% of the vote.

Youssef’s personal trajectory undulated with similar drama, and would seem to exemplify, as Giants wants to make very clear, the power of the press. Both Morsi and Sisi implicitly acknowledged Youssef’s influence by trying to silence him. He was arrested once and was the subject of death threats and protests. Finally, in 2015 and under Sisi (who denies involvement) “Al Bernameg” was cancelled altogether.

Giants tells a fascinating story, one with high stakes, moral questions, an intelligent, witty and imperfect protagonist (at one point, Youssef admits that things would be much easier if he were felled by a stray bullet) and a supporting cast of scrappy, earnest characters in the shape of “Al Bernameg”’s young crew. There’s a lot to show in two hours, and the film takes a rhythmic, one-thing-after-another approach, structuring its story as a series of mini-climaxes.

But Giants is also one-sided. For a film that harps on the shoddily narrow scope of the Egyptian media, it only gives voice to a few. It is Youssef’s story, but his detractors are an important part of that tale, and with the exception of one young man who calls Youssef nothing worse than “disrespectful,” but who wants to attend his show in order to better understand his appeal anyway (we should all be so open), Youssef’s naysayers are painted as crazy, hateful zealots. Are there no other sober-minded opponents with legitimate points to raise?

Of course, it is entirely possible, and perhaps likely, that the precarious and violent political situation made gaining access to people outside Youssef’s circle not only difficult but extremely dangerous. The omission, then, is only too bad, because otherwise this personal vehicle for recent history runs well.

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