“It’s about holding authority accountable, regardless of who’s in charge.” This is the statement that has defined Bessem Youssef’s comedic career. He lives to tickle the giants. To be a constant annoyance to those in power. It’s the reason he left a successful career as a heart surgeon to host Al Bernameg (literally The Show), Egypt’s first political satire. In his weekly broadcasts, Youssef dissects the country’s political leaders, mocking, but also encouraging his viewers to never be complacent. Asking for people to always question and hold those in power accountable.
Director Sara Taksler knows she’s working with a dream of a subject. There is no better ambassador for freedom of speech and the free press. She mostly takes a backseat, acting as a facilitator of Youssef’s message, instead of imposing herself onto the film. She has Youssef narrate Tickling Giants, as her camera documents the making of Al Bernameg from its inception on YouTube to becoming the most popular show in the Middle East. At its height of popularity, attracting over 30 million viewers an episode, which is equivalent to about 40 percent of the Egyptian population.
Youssef is an intelligent and hugely entertaining performer. Aided by a dynamic team of young writers and research assistants, the content of Al Bernameg is incredibly engaging and enlightening. No one is important enough to escape their hilariously critical eye. Al Bernameg almost makes North America’s political satire shows seem quaint. The show’s creative team shows inspiring determination and perseverance in the face of extraordinary resistance. John Stewart literally bowed down to them.
While Egypt’s quickly pivoting political situation is worthy of its own documentary, that is not what Tickling Giants is about. Taksler only gives enough of an overview to provide context for Youssef’s comedy. Overall, the specifics don’t really matter. The film acts as a case study on the importance of free speech. It supports the belief that no one is above scrutiny. That in an era of “alternate facts” and worldwide political upheaval, dissenting voices like Youssef’s are more important than ever.
Youssef’s story is fleshed out with interviews of his friends, family and collaborators providing background on Youssef himself. Cartoons, drawn by Tarek AlKazzaz, co-creator of Al Bernameg, take the burden of conveying the necessary cultural and political background information. The entire presentation of the film, from its cute title of Tickling Giants to the interjections of humorous drawings and quips from Youssef lends a light touch to the extremely serious subject of free speech and the free press.
And that’s what makes Tickling Giants such an accomplished film. In a world of alternative facts where freedom of speech and journalists are constantly under attack, fighting for the right to speak your mind is more important that ever. It is easy for these discussions to get bogged down and preachy or degrade into shouting matches. Tickling Giants makes it clear that all the filmmaker and her subject are advocating for is the right to question and the right to hold those responsible for running our countries and our world accountable. It’s not about specific beliefs, it’s about keeping them on their toes. Tickling them, as it were. Reminding them that the people are paying attention, and they will annoy you to death if they have to. It’s an important message and one that Youssef and Taksler tackle with a smile. Because jokes make everything go down easier.