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Independent film highlights humor, activism in ‘Tickling Giants’

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Independent film highlights humor, activism in ‘Tickling Giants’
“The Show” host Bassem Youssef interviews subjects in Cairo. (Photo: Photo: Sarkasmos Productions LLC)

Sara Taksler’s independent film “Tickling Giants” screened recently in a special event at the Kendall Square Cinema. The documentary tells the story of Bassem Youssef, a surgeon in Egypt who noticed during the 2011 protests of President Hosni Mubarak that the content on the news didn’t reflect what he saw on the streets. He began an internet show satirizing the political situation, and it quickly became a popular network program.

On “The Show,” Youssef shed light on Egyptian authority and politics through humor. The content has been compared to Jon Stewart’s work on “The Daily Show,” and Stewart appears in the film. However, Youssef broadcast to an audience of 30 million, compared to Stewart’s two million in the United States. Despite the similar content, Youssef was operating with much higher stakes: The honesty that delighted audiences brought censorship and arrest warrants from the authorities.

Standing up to power

On her website introducing the film, Taksler says, “‘Tickling Giants’ is about a guy who is just telling jokes, and yet his voice is so much louder and more articulate than the people a few blocks away who are shooting each other.” The film reveals the power of humor and of the everyday citizen. “The Show” was nonviolent protest on an enormous scale. In the turbulent political conditions of the United States, this story of speaking up is more powerful than ever.

Creating the film came with its own risks. Taksler was shooting in Egypt in a time when government censorship was frequent and dangerous. She says, “The core idea in ‘Tickling Giants’ is to leave people inspired by a team of ordinary people that risked their own comfort and, by doing so, found a way to be heard and to influence change.” And get out of her comfort zone, Taksler did. She took most of the b-roll footage on a point-and-shoot camera from a moving vehicle. She refrained from mentioning her trip to Egypt on any social media until the filming was complete.

At its heart, “Tickling Giants” isn’t about a superstar comedian, but an ordinary man speaking out against corruption. Through humor and humanity, the piece speaks volumes about freedom of speech and truth in the media, an ever-present topic these days. Taksler says, “We are all faced with giants — people who abuse their power. It is up to us to decide how to stand up to that.”