Bassem Youssef, Jon Stewart
US theatrical: 14 Mar 2017 (Limited release)
“Of course, our intentions were good—simply to tell a story honestly—but some people were suspicious of the cameras and worried about being filmed.”
“It takes a long time before you’re able to affect and control the media. We’re working on this.” General El-Sisi leans into a microphone, his forehead shiny and his yellow military epaulets bright against his camouflage uniform. Flowers stretch across the table before him and he’s framed by water bottles and Wet Ones containers. This contrast, between the figure of the general amid such domestic flourishes, hints at the complex process he faces, the transformation of the Egyptian army’s 2013 coup into something that resembles a sustainable government.
It’s striking that Abdel Fattah El-Sisi points to his effort to “affect and control the media” for a few reasons. First, it supports a focus in the film Tickling Giants, which tracks the story of Bassem Youssef and his TV show, Al-Bernameg (The Show), as the heart surgeon rises from an amateur webcast to national prominence, drawing fans and critics, as well as the support of Jon Stewart, who, you see here, interviewed Bassem on The Daily Show and traveled to Cairo to appear on The Show). Second, it holds up a mirror to American media, currently in the throes of being affected and controlled.
Tickling Giants, which screens at New York’s IFC Center from 14-21 March, before opening across the US, traces the process by which such effects occur, how the most effective sort of control occurs inconspicuously, such that people don’t feel coerced, but instead that their ideas are their own. When oppression is obvious, visible on television and the internet, like Mubarek’s regime and rallies against it as shown early in this film, right and wrong sides look clearly defined. When Bassem goes to Tahrir to tend to injured protestors, he finds a calling, not in the doctoring but in being on camera. “I saw two different realities,” he remembers, “the reality that I saw in the streets and the other reality that I saw on television.” The documentary offers examples, crowds of protestors on one side of a split screen and talking heads on the other.
As Bassem tells it, he and a friend, Tarek ElKazzaz, decide to take on the media by becoming part of it. They model their effort on the The Daily Show, call it “The B+ Show” (named for Bassem’s blood type), and upload it to YouTube. As a doctor, Bassem explains, “My job is to cut people open, to see what’s inside” (here the documentary includes a surgery scene, which features a cut into an abdomen and a fainting cameraman who serves as the butt of a joke). “I love sarcasm,” Bassem goes on, “It lets me cut through people’s facades without spilling any blood.”
It’s a clever analogy but it has limits, which the film goes on to expose. Namely, as Bassem is increasingly part of the media, his cutting takes on new forms; making fun of the media makes him part of the media. As The Show transitions to television, the set gets glossier, the bits more elaborate (with some singing and dancing), and the live audience is enthusiastic, as Bassem is promoted as “the Jon Stewart of Egypt”. The film provides frequent images of viewers, in cafes and in their homes, appreciating the scathing comedy, intercut with animation by JF Andeel, celebrating Baseem’s satire in images of a feather used to tickle tanks and giants. When Mohamed Morsi’s government comes after him, Bassem’s fans follow him to court and support him with signs and noise. With the case dismissed, he’s proclaimed “the most popular man in Egypt”.
That popularity grows as Morsi’s wanes, precipitously. As Bassem narrates, Morsi was elected in 2011 and forced out in 2013, following his efforts to expand his power and that of the Muslim Brotherhood (he’s currently in prison, awaiting two retrials by courts whose authority he rejects). As the film recalls, Sis’s leadership of the coup is conducted in large part on television, and it’s not long before his popularity eclipses Bassem’s, and his administration targets The Show. Backstage at the studio, The Show‘s team describe their days (“We’re having fun here and were making fun of politics”), even as Sisi intensifies his efforts to stop them. As Sisi cracks down on dissent, on civil rights activists and media. Bassem worries, “It is becoming scary to be on TV.”
Backstage at the studio, the camera follows Bassem as he ponders the changes going on around him. Now, crowds gather to support Sisi and protest Bassem. “The prophet won people over,” Bassem muses, “There’s a time to confront and there’s a time to be smart. You have to spread awareness. The solution may not be marches and protests. The solution could be reaching out to people.”
The film, directed by Daily Show producer Sara Taksler, submits that comedy provides one means to reach out, with its frequent images of laughing audience members. But as much as people might share in pleasure, they are also easily divided by fear. This flipside of the argument is clear in Sisi’s smoothly choreographed performances on TV (during an interview with Charlie Rose, he denies oppressing any dissent). Such appearances create their own story. “To Sisi,” Bassem says, “Freedom of expression is nothing but an obstacle.” And oppression is most effective when it doesn’t look like oppression, when it creates enemies.
Absorbing Sisi’s presentation, his fans grow in number and noise. “Don’t mess with the Egyptian army and Sisi,” declares one woman during a protest outside The Show‘s studio. When a young man nearby identifies himself as a Bassem fan, another woman accuses him of being “like him”, and then, “You’re brainwashed.” The camera does its best to keep its increasingly agitated subjects in frame, as the young man laments, “Suddenly you’re against the man who fought the Brotherhood.”
Upstairs in the studio, Bassem and his employees peer through curtains, framed from the back. “They misunderstood the episode,” says one woman. “I’m scared,” says another. Bassem observes in voice-over, “In a time of panic and fear, satire is very difficult to swallow, very difficult to digest.” When Bassem won’t stop making fun of Sisi, the show becomes a news story, and then, a legal target. The channel broadcasting it decides, at last, to stop, announcing it “will not use any material that is distasteful or mocks the feelings of the Egyptian public.”
Sisi’s redefinition of the “Egyptian public”, premised on his election victory, shifts the ground from under Bassem. Now he has fans, but not a show. His wife Hala observes that, as important as his work was, she’s relieved that he’s not doing the show at the moment: “Everything is different,” she says. And yet it’s all the same, too. Media, as both Sisi and Bassem understand, are available to be affected and controlled. Media are their own giant, they shape beliefs and create community, instill hope and fear. Perhaps it’s a lesson that will be taken seriously by viewers in the US.