Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Apr 06, 2017 9:41 am 
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From a dictator to free elections, back to a dictatorship: the rise and fall and the unique satiric voice of Egypt's Bassem Youssef

Tickling Giants is a thrilling and enthralling story but also a heartbreaking one. It's the story of Egypt and the Arab Spring, from a dictatorship to free elections to another dictatorship to a popular overthrow that became a military coup that became a worse dictatorship. It's the story of a testing of the limits of a free press, the power of a bold satiric voice, and the crushing of freedom that for a short time enjoyed a brief fragile, beautiful moment of life. The story of "the Jon Stewart of Egypt" Bassem Youssef, it's also the story of the Egyptian Revolution of January 25, 2011 and, not-so-indirectly, the story of the Arab Spring. For anyone who cares about those events, this turbulent and thrilling (though overlong) documentary is essential viewing. It shows how vibrant the Egyptian people are - which makes it all the sadder that they are being crushed.

It's also rather astonishing that Bassem Youssef was a highly successful heart surgeon in Cairo. When the demonstrations came in Tahrir Square, he went as a doctor but also a supporter. Starting out on YouTube making fun of Mubarak (a well-worn occupation for Egyptians) he got 30,000 views in the first day, millions later. His success quickly got him a show modeled on Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" with a novelty in Egypt: a hooting, cheering live audience. Three million watched Jon Stewart: Bassem was watched by 30 million. It is amazing how easily this heart surgeon took on the mantle of a comic. You'd think he'd been grooming for it all his life. Jon Stewart himself declares himself a fan, and makes a surprise appearance on Youssef's show in Cairo to pay him homage and endorse him and his ideals of free speech and truth to power.

There's something quintessentially Egyptian about Bassem Youssef. Egyptians are famous for "khiffat dammhum," their sense of humor. They love to tell jokes and they love to laugh. Mubarak's three-decade dictatorship gave them plenty of opportunity to practice mocking power. But freedom needs satire as much as dictatorship. In fact though elected by popular vote (but he wan't the first or best candidate even of his party, and came forth through a technicality) Morsi quickly began trying to become a dictator worse than Mubarak.

Bassem Youssef's satire of Morsi is ruthless, and he is at the height of his popularity. Eventually a majority opposes Morsi's incompetence and his attempt to take over dictatorial powers for himself and his party, the Muslim Brotherhood. Youssef's program, called humorously "bernameg-el-bernameg," a show simply called "The Show," has a young, talented, enthusiastic team. We see them in action. We meet Youssef's wife and little daughter, Nadia. He has several years of unparelleled success. We see young men in open cafes puffing on their shishas and laughing uproarously.

But when Morsi is overthrown, it's billed as a popular uprising, but as the show points out, with satirical hints, it's really a coup by the military. And when a general takes over, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, things change for the show called "The Show." First, el-Sissi is welcomed as a savior, a strong hand needed to straighten out the mess created by the Muslim Brotherhood; Egyptians love the military, and to attack el-Sissi is to attack the military. Second, el-Sissi is setting out systematically to eliminate political freedoms. This becomes gradually evident with the bombings, massacres, shutdowns, and the incarceration of dozens of journalists, activists, and students.

The Show has to shift to another netowrk, then is shut down. Or rather, the signal of the station is jammed during The Show. "Where will I go next?" jokes Bassem, "the porn network?" He becomes frightened for his wife and small child. He says he can't sleep or eat. The staff are advised to work from home. "I'm basically in the middle of a crossfire, and people either love me to death or hate me to death," Bassem says. There's a crowd outside the studio with fat middle aged ladies calling for Bassem's execution. It's ironic that their chant is "Bassem Youssef is a coward." His bravery in the face of power is increasingly evident.

Though maybe it could do with a little cutting, this film by Sara Taksler, a producer of Stewart's "The Daily Show," keeps it energetic and compelling throughout. This becomes the story not just of one not so unusual man who becomes extraordinary in special circumstances, but an object lesson in free speech and democracy.

Tickling Giants, 111 mins., debuted at Tribeca 14 Apr. 2017; also London, Stockholm, Cleveland. Theatrical release in LA (Laemle) 7 Apr. 2017. TRAILER.


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