by Steve Desroches
From Aristophanes to Voltaire to Stephen Colbert satire has long been a cultural tool to take those in power down a peg or two with a laugh. The comic check and balance on authority in any form reaches the masses when their guards comes down as they respond to humor. The comic master and legend Mel Brooks used satire to express his ever-present anger over the Nazis and the Holocaust. How could one man take on Hitler and the legacy of those that followed him? Make him a joke. Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler,” the fictional Busby Berkeley-style musical from his 1968 film (and 2001 Broadway musical) The Producers shocked some, but delighted others proving to be one of the all time great moments of powerful satire. It’s effective. So effective its landed some of its most famous practitioners, as well as everyday people, in jail. In some cases, it can even lead to exile, or worse.
In America, perhaps there is no better modern-day example of the power of satire than Jon Stewart, who from 1999 to 2015 hosted The Daily Show. The satirical news program’s reach went beyond the U.S., having a global effect. So much so that during the Egyptian Revolution in the Arab Spring of 2011, it inspired Cairo heart surgeon Dr. Bassem Youssef to leave his work as a physician and start his own satirical program Al-Bernameg (The Show).
At its height the show had 30 million viewers per episode, garnering about 40 percent of the Egyptian population, who were enchanted by this freedom of expression previously forbidden under the long dictatorial rule of Hosni Mubarak. The documentary Tickling Giants by Sara Taksler, which tells the fascinating story of this hilarious, free speech pioneer, will screen at Wellfleet Preservation Hall this Saturday as part of the Cape Cod Festival of Arab & Middle Eastern Cinema.
“Speaking truth to power and resisting tyrannical authorities is a global issue wherever you are, this is why it translates so well,” says Youssef, via e-mail, as to why satire is such a powerful weapon around the world.
Nicknamed in the United States “the Egyptian Jon Stewart,” the two funny men have appeared on each other’s shows, both cultural juggernauts, but facing very, very different responses and pressures in their respective countries. Taksler, a senior producer at The Daily Show, decided to make the film after Youssef’s 2012 appearance on the show (the film is a completely independent project with no affiliation to The Daily Show.) While her vantage point, great sense of humor, and professional experiences gave her a boost in tackling the project, although satire can be universal, it takes a global mind and an insatiable curiosity to understand it across cultures.
“It’s actually quite hard to understand satire in a different language and culture,” says Taskler. “When Bassem first watched The Daily Show, he didn’t get it. There were so many references to people and political situations that he was not familiar with. He spent months studying the world Jon Stewart was discussing so the jokes would make sense. The same was true for me when watching Al-Bernameg. Jokes only make sense when there is a shared knowledge of the situation. But, some things carry over. Since Bassem knew who George Bush was, those jokes made sense. Once you know enough about a different culture to understand who the characters are, then the comedy can be funny to everyone because the same nonsense occurs around the world.”
Tickling Giants plays like a cross between the political thriller The Parallax View and the Marx Brothers. Both hilarious and harrowing, Tickling Giants perfectly lays out a very confusing time in Egypt, from the overthrow of Mubarak to the subsequent election and then the second revolution, or coup, depending on your perspective, that forced Mohamed Morsi out of office and brought in Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who is the current authoritarian ruler of Egypt. It also shows how a small group of Egyptians, men and women of a variety of faiths and viewpoints, became heroes for testing Egypt’s first foray into freedom of expression, paying a price along the way. For Youssef, his show was forced off the air and he out of the country, now living in exile in California. Under Sisi, freedom of expression has been silenced as ferociously as it ever was under Mubarak. And in part it’s why Youssef feels most Americans don’t have a clear understanding of the current state of Egypt.
“No, interest has faded after the Arab Spring and many think that being under military rule is a better option than a religious one,” says Youssef as to whether or not Americans understand Egypt now. “They don’t hear anything from Egypt, not because it is stable, but because everyone is silenced.”
Despite all the hope for greater freedoms in Egypt that came with the Arab Spring, the situation is dire, especially for the country’s minorities and dissenters. While not addressed in the film, the powers that be in Egypt attacked Youssef using a variety of techniques and laws, including charging him with “promoting homosexuality.” Youssef explains that this is a common tactic to target activists.
“Being gay is a ready made accusation used by authority whether military or religious to tarnish political activists,” says Youssef. “It is [a] way to confuse and mix political freedoms with sexual deviance. If you ask for freedom then you want orgies, unchecked sexual freedoms, all men are gay and all women are prostitutes. In a conservative society these kinds of attacks work…. No, there is no progress for LGBT rights as well as no progress for any minority’s rights, including Christians, atheists, Baha’is, Muslims with more liberal critical thoughts. Homophobia is just a product of lack of tolerance to anyone or anything different.”
For Taksler, making Tickling Giants has taken on a new meaning as many of the world’s oldest democracies flirt with authoritarianism, be it the popularity of far right-wing European leaders like Marine Le Pen in France or Gerte Wilders in the Netherlands, or the retreat from progress in countries like Turkey and the Phillippines, as well as Vladimir Putin, who jailed artists like Pussy Riot for criticizing him. And of course there’s Trump, who it should be noted, skipped last weekend’s White House Correspondent’s Dinner, famous for its roast of each president, and engaged in Twitter tirades over Saturday Night Live skits lampooning him.
“When I was making Tickling Giants, I never could have imagined that I would relate to the politics in my own country,” says Taksler. “After our election in the U.S., I watched the movie again and couldn’t believe how much felt familiar. The U.S. has a long history of freedom of speech, which is not the case in Egypt. But, in America, people are choosing fear over free speech. People are increasingly more willing to give up freedoms and compromise values if they think it will keep them safe.”
Tickling Giants screens as part of the Cape Cod Festival of Arab & Middle Eastern Cinema at Wellfleet Preservation Hall, 335 Main St. on Saturday, May 6 at 7 p.m. preceded by the Iranian short film Light Sight. Tickets are $15 and are available at the box office and online at wellfleetpreservationhall.org. For more information on the festival visit capecodfilmsociety.com. For more information on the venue call 508.349.1800.
The fourth biennial Cape Cod Festival of Arab & Middle Eastern Cinema presents films from the Arab world, the Middle East, and the diaspora offering audiences on the Outer Cape a chance to hear voices and viewpoints not traditionally part of the American conversation. The festival kicks off Thursday, May 4 at the Chatham Orpheum Theater with a screening of Halal Love (and Sex), a Lebanese comedy by Assad Fouladkar.
Friday and Saturday the Festival travels to Wellfleet Preservation Hall with a special Spotlight on Syria with Avo Kaprealian’s House Without Doors, a documentary following an Armenian family trapped on the frontlines of the civil war, followed the next day by a tribute to the late Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami featuring his Taste of Cherry introduced and discussed by noted Iranian film scholar Professor Jamsheed Akrami in the afternoon and the documentary Tickling Giants in the evening.
The festival arrives in Provincetown on Sunday at WOMR Studios at the Schoolhouse with the closing night film Yallah! Underground by Farid Eslam, which explores political dissent among Arab underground musicians and artists from Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, and Israel. Throughout the festival, a different short film from filmmakers in the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Palestine precedes each feature. For more information and tickets visit capecodfilmsociety.com.