Are you brave enough to tell a joke?
Religion & Liberty Online

Are you brave enough to tell a joke?

Ticking Giants (2017) tells how an Egyptian comedian found a way to fight against and call out abusive leaders with creative non-violence.

This new documentary directed and produced by Sara Taksler follows Dr. Bassem Youssef, the “Jon Stewart of Egypt,” a heart surgeon turned late-night comedian who took on Egyptian authority. It opens on Tahrir Square in Cairo where protests have broken out against military control of the government. Youssef and a camera crew walk around talking to the fed up masses. Gunshots constantly go off, some in the distance and some close by.

The story jumps back a couple of years to January 2011 when Hosni Mubarak was still in power. Despite having ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years without competition, the people were suddenly taking to the streets to demand his removal. This kind of demonstration was practically unheard of in Egyptian culture. The media, who largely support whoever rules Egypt, call the protestors “insurgents.” This is where Youssef, in a voiceover, explains the two realities that exist in Egypt: The reality on the streets and the “reality” on TV.

The protestors’ work pays off. Mubarak steps down in February 2011. Youssef is thrilled for the new direction of his nation, calling it a “New Egypt.” His optimism is short lived.

The documentary then focuses on Youssef himself and what led him to become Egypt’s Jon Stewart. Despite success as a heart surgeon, Youssef and a friend begin making videos and sharing them online. They use humor to point out the many, many flaws with their government and the media, a model based on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.” They hoped it would be moderately successful; the first video got 35,000 views on the first day and continued to climb in popularity. This was the first time Egyptians were laughing at or making fun of authority. “Hold authority accountable,” Youssef explains of the show. “No matter who’s in charge.” Eventually the videos take off and it becomes a real show on TV. The show, Al Bernameg (in English, “The Show”) is run entirely by amateurs. Because nothing like this show had ever been done before, it’s created by recent grads, architects, lawyers, and, of course, stars a heart surgeon. One of the writers explains why this type of commentary is so important: “The funniest joke ever is the one told at a funeral.”

Meanwhile, the first true election is held in Egypt and Mohamed Morsi, representing the Muslim Brotherhood, is elected president of Egypt.

Despite 40 percent of the population watching The Show, Youssef doesn’t enjoy universal popularity. A warrant is issued for his arrest and willingly turns himself in. There is immediate outcry forcing the authorities to release him. Youssef describes the incident as “what happens when you go after a joker.”

Jon Stewart, Ahmed Abbas and Bassem Youssef (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood try to force Islamic conservatism on the nation, much to the ire of Egyptian General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who ousts Morsi in a military coup. Despite changes in regimes, The Show continues to attack leaders, gaining and losing diehard fans depending on who’s on the receiving end of Youssef’s satire. He described it in 2013 when he accepted an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists:

For some reason, a joke would piss off a lot of people although the same people were laughing at the same joke before, but it only hurts when the joke is on you. So the same people who defended our freedom a few months ago as I was taken for questioning on accounts of blasphemy, insulting the president, and threatening national security are now quite indifferent when I am faced with charges like disturbing the peace, grand treason, and, of course, the gift that keeps on giving: threatening national security.

Men and women working on The Show suddenly have family members getting arrested with no official charges. Protests and violence continue. “It’s like 9/11 every day,” describes Youssef. Meanwhile, the network that had been so supportive of this revolutionary show no longer wants to challenge authority. Executives tell The Show that they have to quit mocking the government if they want to stay on the air. Youssef and his team find a new network. During a broadcast on the new channel, people have trouble watching it. The signal for the show is lost, yet commercials are broadcast without a problem. Sisi’s people jammed it.

The importance of The Show’s work is overshadowed by how dangerous doing that work has become. Its old network sues Youssef for breach of contract, he loses the case and that becomes the highest fine ever given. In 2014 he cancels The Show. Between the growing negative sentiment and fearing for his wife and daughter, Youssef makes the decision to leave Egypt. Once he’s out, the realization sets in he may never go back. He misses his father’s funeral because his brother warns it’s too dangerous to return.

The documentary ends with footage of cars and motorcycles driving backwards through Cairo. After all the hope from the first democratic election in Egypt, Youssef voices his disgust with the nation he once had so much hope for.

At 113 minutes long, it’s not too long of documentary and shares a very unique perspective on the Arab Spring. Bassem Youssef and The Show demonstrate not just the power of humor in bringing down dangerous regimes, but the need for free speech.  One warning: The film isn’t rated, but it features strong language, violence and some disturbing imagery. The language alone would certainly warrant an R rating.

Featured Image: “Dr. Bassem Youssef” by Gigi Ibahrim (CC BY 2.0)