Alum’s political satire documentary premieres at Tivoli
“Tickling Giants”—written, directed and produced by Washington University alumna Sara Taksler—premiered at the Tivoli and other theaters nationwide Tuesday. The film follows Egyptian political satirist through his turbulent journey from heart surgeon to successful late night host to expatriate living in exile from the Egyptian government. It weaves a tense yet humbling story of a man who places his life in danger for comedy. The documentary premiered at 16 Landmark theaters throughout the country and had the fifth highest box office average per theater for the weekend, according to Box Office Mojo.
Taksler, a senior producer on “The Daily Show,” delicately brings together the terrifying, foreign reality of the Arab Springs and Egyptian Crisis and the vibrant comedy of Youssef, which likens itself to many American late-night shows. The cinematograph’s shallow depth of field leaves viewers roaming the frame throughout the film, searching for points of focus and taking in the entirety of the scene. Youssef’s show, translated in English to “The Show,” averaged 30 million viewers per episode. In comparison, the series finale of “Friends” saw about 52.5 million viewers and many episodes of “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” see about 1 million.
Four years in the making, the documentary winds through Youssef’s life, from leaving his position as a heart surgeon, to creating online comedy videos, to being broadcast on Egyptian television. Taksler does not shy away from the threats Youssef receives, the protests in the street or the stress the writers faced knowing that they or their families could be jailed at any time for their participation in the show. Through the camera’s lens, the viewer can process the events of the Egyptian revolution in understandable terms, rather than clouded media reports, and create comparisons to freedom of speech in America. All the events become much more personable through real footage of street protests and injuries.
The documentary couldn’t be released at a more relevant time in the United States. Many members of the media have criticized President Trump’s tendency to block media members who have released unfavorable articles on the President from getting future information. Youssef, in interviews promoting the documentary and his recently released book “Revolution for Dummies: Laughing Through the Arab Spring,” often jokes that he left Egypt’s revolution just in time for America’s. In fact, though Youssef has not been on his political comedy show since it was shut down in 2014, he has recently been making the rounds on popular American late night shows: “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and a hilarious sub-soul cycle segment of “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee.”
This popularity in America is not surprising, as Youssef’s charisma was constant in the documentary, both in captioned Arabic and in accented English. The comedian displayed strength through threats from his channel, from protestors and from the government, in a showcase of what media in contrary government should be.
The only part of the documentary that gave me pause was the ending. Though the majority of the film championed bravery in comedy through adversity, “Tickling Giants” ends with Youssef moving to America to escape imprisonment and being unable to return to Egypt for his father’s funeral. Though these facts are devastating, the ending made it seem like the Egyptian government had finally defeated Youssef’s outspoken humor, that he had finally given in. With his novel, continued presence in American political comedy and news and a show on Fusion last year called “Democracy Handbook,” the opposite is true, and I wish the film had reflected Youssef’s continued defiance from America more.
Sara Taksler will be coming to campus on April 7 for a screening of “Tickling Giants” and subsequent discussion.