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Film Reviews Review: Tickling Giants shows the dangerously thin line between democracy and tyranny

Bassem Youssef became something of a folk hero for Egyptians with his Jon-Stewart-style satirical take on current events in the country. The dictators were not pleased.

Globe and Mail Update

3 out of 4 stars

Title
Tickling Giants
Written by
Sara Taksler
Directed by
Sara Taksler
Starring
Bassem Youssef, Jon Stewart and Shadi Alfons
Genre
Documentary
Country
USA
Language
English

Tickling Giants traces the rise of Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian cardiologist who morphed into a biting political satirist and incurred the wrath of not one but two dictators along the way.

In an era when an American president rages over how he's depicted on Saturday Night Live and obsesses about quelling critical "fake news," this is one relevant film.

Directed by Sara Taksler, senior producer at The Daily Show, the rapid-fire documentary introduces North Americans to Youssef, whose scathing late-night comedy program gave Egyptians a glimpse of what real democracy looks like, this in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Called The Show, it truly was the show: roughly 40 per cent of Egypt's population tuned in every week.

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The heart surgeon's forays into politics began after he treated protesters wounded in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution that saw Hosni Mubarak's 30-year-long dictatorship toppled in 2011. Affected by what he saw and dismayed by fawning, pro-government media coverage, Youssef decided to try to change public dialogue with his own show.

His ragtag writing team was composed entirely of amateurs: funny lawyers, architects and recent graduate students united in defiance. The comedic style was pure Borscht Belt, delivered with maniacally arched brows and over-the-top gesticulation. Watching rapt on television screens at outdoor cafés, Egyptians keeled over in laughter at Youssef's brazenness taking down conservative clerics and politicians, unprecedented on TV in this country.

Dubbed the "Egyptian Jon Stewart," he won praise from Stewart, who acknowledged that Youssef's work was far more high stakes than his own: "It doesn't get me into the kind of trouble it gets you into," Stewart told him during an appearance on The Show.

And there was trouble. After Egyptians elected Mohamed Morsi in 2012, the president quickly turned around and granted himself absolute power by overturning the constitution. In fine despotic fashion, Morsi had prosecutors issue an arrest warrant for Youssef on the bogus charge of "insulting the president." Youssef's crime? Ribbing Morsi for a ceremonial hat he wore while receiving an honourary doctorate.

Life grew even more surreal for Youssef after the president was deposed by military leader Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. In the film, these scenes are particularly dystopian. As his writers celebrate a colleague's birthday with cake inside the studio, a mob of el-Sissi supporters protests outside. They are not fans of the show: "Execute Bassem so I can feel better," snarls one elderly woman. On set, bomb-sniffing dogs weave through the seats as guests line up across from soldiers bearing riot guns. Show co-creator Tarek ElKazzaz's father is arrested and imprisoned for eight months, without charge.

Youssef grew rightfully paranoid for the safety of his family and employees, who come to work despite the threats, devoted to their boss. One of them is illustrator Andeel, whose cartoon of a tiny Bassem Youssef tickling the giant, hairy foot of a dictator informs the title of the film. Andeel, who continues to agitate in Egypt with a podcast, understands the tense flavour of comedy in wartime: "The funniest joke ever is the joke that's told at a funeral."

Despite astronomic ratings, the network ultimately caved to government pressure, pulling the plug on Youssef's circus in 2014. "The regime is scared of a show," a fan commented to the filmmaker. "It's weird."

Under el-Sissi's authoritarian rule, Youssef now sits exiled in the United States, a country more ripe than ever for political satire. Unsurprisingly, Trump has been getting cozy with el-Sissi, whose alarming human-rights record includes the 400-day imprisonment of Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy for broadcasting "false news."

Taksler's film is a testament to the quick slide from democracy to tyranny and a reminder to watch closely what political leaders do with the free press.

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