I remember landing in Cairo during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, and taking a taxi to the Windsor Hotel. It is located within easy walking distance of the now famous Tahrir Square, also known as Martyr Square. On the way from the airport to the hotel, I was stopped three times at police roadblocks and asked to show my identification papers. I had arrived in Cairo on January 26, a few days before the “Day of Rage” when everything would begin to unfurl.
At the hotel, I met for lunch with my local contact on the ground. Karim handed me Intel, a packet of briefing materials containing everything I immediately needed to know about the current unrest in Egypt. Included in the envelope was a USB stick and a few documents, the former of which I had seldom seen in an Intel briefing.
When I returned to my room, I popped in the USB stick and read the documents. After the documents, I looked at the various video files. Included was something called “The Bassem Youssef Show”, or B+ as it was actually titled. I eagerly watched three episodes that evening.
Not only was it quite amusing, but it showcased the best of the Egyptian sense of humor, at once jovial and melancholic. Youssef was ever-charming, with a sense of humor that worked smoothly internationally. His intelligence and sheer wit marked a combination that the Egyptian people could be immensely proud of. He presented the new era of educated Egyptians with the freedom they so desperately sought, even at the cost of what that freedom would entail.
At the same time, his commentary also reflected the rapidly changing tides of the state itself and how the voices of the local people figured into that environment. I quickly navigated my way to the YouTube channel where additional episodes had been uploaded, and watched a few more. I was hooked.
As I explored the streets of Cairo that night, I engaged in conversation with young, academically inclined Egyptians, and saw hope in their souls and fire in their eyes. I found that many knew of the B+ show. Soon enough, it even became common ground to mention B+ as a conversation starter. Named after Youssef’s blood type, the show provided a platform for millions of Egyptians who had enough of the traditional media’s coverage of the Egyptian Revolution. As someone who operated extensively throughout the Middle East, I found Bassem Youssef’s manner of delivering emotionally charged information enjoyable and relevant to the ongoing affairs in Egypt at the time.
As I became more familiar with Youssef and his brilliant knack for storytelling, I heard many compare him to Jon Stewart. At the time, I was only vaguely familiar with Stewart. One thing I knew for certain, however, was that where Stewart’s satire had launched him to stardom, Bassem’s had placed his political and social freedom in great jeopardy. Bassem had a mountain to climb and higher stakes but, in the end, he brought true democracy through satire.
Fast forward to five years later, in July of this year, another unexpected though rewarding, opportunity presented itself. One evening, at one of our late night Lima Charlie editorial SITREPs, Lima Charlie’s Editor-in-Chief paused to add one more story to a series of very heavy stories about the Middle East. “How do you feel about doing a film review?” he asked. Puzzled, and not sure if I was hearing correctly over a long distance, unsecure phone line, I asked for a radio check. “A film review,” he repeated. “You’re going to love it. It’s perfect for you.” Swedes don’t often get too excited, so I held back showing any emotion. “What’s it about?” I asked. Upon hearing the name “Bassem Youssef” I was immediately delighted. His name had not crossed my mind in years, and I had no idea that there was a documentary in the making.
But it was also another name—an unfamiliar one at the time—that caught my attention and intrigued me perhaps equally. Sara Taksler, he mentioned to me, was the heart, mind, and spirit, behind the film. He gave me a little background on Ms. Taksler—a woman who traveled to Egypt alone at a time when the US government fiercely discouraged entrance to the country. At a time when Egypt, even more than normal, was a dangerous place for journalists—let alone female reporters—Ms. Taksler, Senior Producer at the Daily Show, would emerge to create a truly artful film on a trailblazing political and social phenomenon.
The documentary takes us from the early ambitions of Bassem to the beginnings of the January revolution in Tahrir Square in Cairo, to the creation of his public persona, all the way to his international recognition. It does not hide the ugly backside of what the revolution meant, or that it was not an easy future to be had for Bassem. In the end [spoiler alert], he gained the admiration of his peers, and the love of his viewers, but still had to flee his home. Ultimately, he transformed from a Patch Adams style surgeon to a media sensation and a nuisance for the political power players of Egypt.
Following his B+ show hit, Bassem’s success earned him a spot on Egyptian channel ONTV, premiering al Bernameg’s first season in Ramadan 2011. At the height of it all, al Bernameg, literally meaning “The Show”, was one of the first Internet to TV conversions in the Middle East. It reached an estimated 30 million viewers and became the most watched television program in the region.
Ms. Taksler agreed to discuss her thoughts with Lima Charlie and we would like to share her responses with our viewers:
Lima Charlie: As a filmmaker, what was the message you were seeking to get out there, with Tickling Giants?
Sara: To me, Tickling Giants is about finding creative, non-violent ways to address those who abuse power. That could mean anything from a class bully to a President Gone Wild. I hope people will post their experiences with the #TicklingGiants. Most of us won’t become world famous comedians when our countries go into a revolution, but we all can speak out when we see something that isn’t right. The people in Bassem’s office are just blocks from Tahrir Square. While violence becomes commonplace in the square, Bassem and his team manage to have their voices heard across the world, just with jokes. The main message to me is that cooler heads prevail. Find a way to express yourself creatively, without violence and you can be so much louder and more articulate than if you’re throwing punches.
Lima Charlie: Our Lima Charlie News Team has been incredibly inspired by Bassem Youssef. What in particular about him has inspired you personally?
Sara: I do what Bassem does, but in the safety of an environment that cherishes and protects free speech. He and his team do what I do, but with such higher stakes. I was scared to go to Egypt and tell their story, but I didn’t want to let fear stop me when they were willing to risk so much to have their voices heard.
Lima Charlie: As a veteran reporting from the Middle East, it suffices to say that a lot of the topics I cover are very heavy and can be dark, which is why it was a true joy to watch this film. In your research and production of Tickling Giants, I imagine you saw a beautiful side of Egypt, its people, and the Middle East that most Americans aren’t exposed to. Are there any in particular that stand out in your mind?
Sara: I loved Egypt. People were so welcoming and of course, like any place, just individuals living their lives. Egypt, to me, is a place of laughter. Joking around is critical to their culture and people seemed very proud of that. I hired a driver to take me around since I don’t speak Arabic. By American standards, it was pretty affordable to do. My driver and I could barely speak the same language, but he took such good care of me, trying to explain where we were and what was going on. He only had one CD that he played over and over, so I got to know it and we sang along. One day, it was his son’s birthday and I made him some balloon animals to take home to him. He taught me the word “friend” and that’s what he called me. On my last day, he put something in my bag that he said was a gift. When I got to the airport and looked, I saw he had given me his only CD as a souvenir.
Lima Charlie: In Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Tina Fey was able to use comedy to convey a heavy topic. Do you see yourself making future films in scripted comedy, drama, or documentary?
Sara: I’m really interested in the place where entertainment and social justice meet. That could be film, music, TV etc. I actually wrote the lyrics for the end credits song, which was a really cool experience. My composer, Paul Tyan worked with two Egyptian rappers to record it. I’m still at The Daily Show, and I imagine any future projects I do will all incorporate comedy. Music is how I deal with things internally. But jokes are how I process the world with other people.
Lima Charlie: Are you still in touch with a lot of your Egyptian crewmembers and do you think you will work with them on another project?
Sara: I actually was just talking today to a friend from Bassem’s show. We were brainstorming future projects we might be able to write together.
Lima Charlie: Bassem Youssef comes across as a “Rocky-like” figure battling against all odds and still standing at the end. Do you intend to follow up to this film with his story and current work?
Sara: Actually, there is part of the film where Bassem seems like he is up against all odds and he manages to still get up and fight for what he believes in. I always pictured that as “Rocky”. You don’t know if he’ll win, but it is inspirational to watch him try. Right now, we’re seeking distribution for Tickling Giants, so there is still quite a bit to do with this film. I would love to work with Bassem again in some way in the future.
As someone who is gleefully detail-obsessive and fact-oriented, I initially viewed Tickling Giants through precisely such a lens. But it was difficult for me to not get wrapped up in the relatable emotions and realities of those involved on the ground in Egypt. Certainly, a purely historical film on the Revolution would incorporate a much more minutia-oriented timeline of unfolding events, but that was not what Sara Taksler set out to do at all. The beauty of Tickling Giants lies in the larger than life spirit of Youssef’s character and soul which is the foundation upon which the political chaos and turmoil unwinds. This film has significant cinematic merit which is carried forth on the big picture medium of who Bassam Youssef is, the political and personal events that began his career, and what he is becoming.
The first ten minutes of the documentary is a lovely piece of black comedy in the best spirit of Monty Python-esqueness. Taksler’s conscious choices in animation help greatly in conveying precisely this quirky, unique character. What’s more, it takes the piss out of not just the surreal situation that Egypt has been facing, but the Egyptian media industry, the Egyptian government, and Bassem Youssef himself. Through the whole ordeal, the ever-charming Youssef remains interestingly approachable and humble too. As things keep twisting in the wind, he returns to play with his little girl and to find tranquility within his family. After all, what more do we need but our loved ones?
It is to me joyously obvious to reflect on how perfectly Tickling Giants captures the essence of Youssef. When Bassem is sitting there waiting to be arrested, his fate in the balance, the comedy, tension and absurdity of the Middle East is absolute. His coverage of the unfolding events invited us to not just passively observe what was happening, but served as a call to action to come down and participate in it if we could. Nearly unheard of in the Western media. To partake in the news rather than just assume the position of a spectator.
As those of us that have worked in difficult situations, especially in the Middle East, know, it is an instinctual necessity to make light of severe situations. But the real challenge that most of us arrive at is relaying it to those not part of the mindset. This is Youssef’s sweet spot. Watching this documentary made me wistfully miss Cairo.
Taksler’s film showcases the absolute best of Bassem, a man who brilliantly finds humor in even the darkest, most clinical, of places. Earlier this year, Youssef tweeted in Arabic, a response to Egypt’s decision to cede sovereignty over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. Translated to “Roll up, roll up, the island is for a billion, the pyramid for two, and a couple of statues thrown in for free,” his signature wit shines through even across the screen of a computer.
As my review of Tickling Giants comes to a close, I feel confident in awarding 4.5 out of 5 bowls of fūl to this brilliant film, noting لا المتدرب أو فافا بجروح في صنع هذا الاستعراض (No interns or bowls of fūl were harmed in the making of this review).
Director | Sara Taksler
Run time | 111 mins.
Main producers | Sara Taksler, Frederic Rose, Maziar Bahari, Monica Hampton
Executive Producer | Technicolor, Hassan Elmasry
Press Contact | Josh Baran | firstname.lastname@example.org
General Inquiries | email@example.com
Trailer | Website
John Sjoholm, Lima Charlie News
John Sjoholm is Lima Charlie’s Middle East Bureau Chief, and founder of the consulting organization Erudite Group. He is a seasoned Middle East connoisseur, with a past in the Swedish Army’s Special Forces branch and the Security Contracting industry. He studied religion and languages in Sana’a, Yemen, and Cairo, Egypt. He lived and operated extensively in the Middle East between 2005-2012 as part of regional stabilizing projects, and currently resides in Jordan. Follow John on Twitter @JohnSjoholmLC
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