A free press is the cornerstone of every thriving democracy. As such, Lima Charlie News has continued to report about oppressive censorship and the intimidation, jailing and even the murder of journalists in such places as Turkey, Africa, Russia and Egypt. This includes some of the challenges we now face even in our own country.
With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 11, 2017
Freedom of expression continues to be under assault as well, with Egyptian authorities announcing jail time for “mocking” the Egyptian flag, as well as detaining citizens for displaying a rainbow flag.
— Amnesty UK (@AmnestyUK) October 15, 2017
— Egypt Independent (@EgyIndependent) September 23, 2017
In light of these developments, Lima Charlie reached out to the people behind the scenes of the critically acclaimed ode to free speech, “Tickling Giants.”
Directed by Sara Taksler, the film tells the story of Egyptian heart surgeon, Bassem Youssef, and how he became the “Jon Stewart of Egypt” during the Egyptian Arab Spring (or “Egyptian Revolution”). The film was shot almost entirely in Egypt, a country that does not respect freedom of speech, and is spoken primarily in a language foreign to the director, the editors, and the intended audience. When filming began in 2012, Sara Taksler did not know the trajectory that Bassem Youssef’s show (a political satire known as B+, later Al-Bernameg) or his career would take.
The show would go on to be the most popular in the Arab world, drawing 30-40 million viewers regularly, and more than 184 million combined views on YouTube alone. It would eventually be cancelled due to intense pressure from the Egyptian government, which claimed that Youssef’s show was “circulating false news likely to disturb public peace and public security and affect the administration.”
The New York Times has called Taksler’s film “first rate,” Variety called it an “ebullient ode to freedom,” and James Gunn, the director of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” called the movie “harrowing and moving.” And of course, Lima Charlie’s own John Sjoholm, a combat veteran and Middle East operative who discovered Youssef while “on assignment” during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, called it a “brilliant film” giving it “4.5 out of 5 bowls of fūl.” (We highly recommend that you read the review that features an interview with the director herself – Editors).
“Tickling Giants” also has an aggregate score of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. All this said, there is not much more we can do to convince readers to see this film.
What we can offer instead is an insider’s perspective on the making of the film and the people who made it. Some of the greatest challenges of filmmaking are often invisible to the moviegoer, and this is true of this documentary.
Through making the film, many of the English speaking crew learned for the first time about Bassem Youssef and the Arab Spring, and many of the Arabic speaking crew relived the hopes and nightmares they experienced in those turbulent years. To capture this, questions were sent to members of the crew, asking them to share their experiences. Below are some of their answers.
Q. Did you know about Bassem before working on the film? If so, what was your opinion of him?
Moaz El Farouk (Assistant Editor): I knew about Bassem since he started his journey on YouTube back in 2011. I always believed in him as the voice of all young people of Egypt.
Rachel Bozich (Assistant Editor): I did not know Bassem beforehand, but was stunned how quickly I grew to admire him and his work.
Cyril Aris (Assistant Editor): Yes, of course, all Middle-Easterners knew of him. I knew he was the Egyptian Jon Stewart, and had seen some of his show. I was happy to see such free speech in such an oppressive country. It gave everyone hope.
Jamie Canobbio (Editor): Once I started on the project and had the chance to work with all the footage it was easy to see what people in Egypt loved about him. He’s a magnetic figure. Very charming and charismatic. He’s a person well equipped to lead, much like a politician. It was fascinating to tell the story of an ordinary person who suddenly finds fame and is inadvertently burdened with being the voice of an entire country.
Salah Anwar (Assistant Editor): Yes, I was born in Egypt then I moved here [to the US] in 2010 and I watched his show on YouTube all the time and later on TV until he was banned. I liked his groundbreaking work and at the same time I didn’t hesitate to criticize some of his opinions, but unlike a lot of Egyptians in Egypt I kept in mind that it’s sarcasm, not real life, and that no one is perfect.
Q. Tell us a story about a day, project, or a scene, that was particularly challenging.
Ahmed Al Baz (Cameraman): A particularly challenging scene was when an angry mob surrounded the theatre where Bassem shoots the show. I had to go out to them, film them, and interview them without them knowing that I worked with Bassem because if they knew, no one could predict what they’d do to me.
Moaz El Farouk: In the film, we covered the violent response in Egypt after the military coup back in July 2013. During these events two of my close friends were killed by military forces. It was really challenging for me to remain strong emotionally, especially when I have to watch and cut hours and hours of footage that reminds me of my lost friends.
Rachel Bozich: The most difficult aspect was the film being in Arabic. A lot of times we’d think we cut this amazing scene together and then we screened it, our Arabic speaking crew members would tell us that the joke we wanted to land wasn’t the same in Arabic or our subtitles were off. Made the editing process quite difficult, but fun.
Cyril Aris: It’s not really a specific story or a specific day, but it’s mostly the creative clash that happens between the heads of post-production (editor, post-prod sup, director, exec producer etc.) on agreeing what the story will be. Documentaries are usually created in the edit, so agreeing on the tone and the overall message of the film was the most challenging aspect, in my opinion. The story in itself is a sad story, but, by virtue of the fact that it happened, it becomes a hopeful story. So that dichotomy between agreeing on whether we are making a tragedy or a more hopeful story was both challenging and unique at the same time.
Ahmed Naguib: I can’t really recall a certain incident, but Bassem and his show were a very touchy subject. Anything that Sara wanted to do outside the sphere of Bassem and his team was quite challenging given our concerns over her safety, as well as fears of running into problems with certain entities in the country.
Tyler Walk (Editor): Finding an introduction to the movie was challenging. As with most documentaries, we tried so many opening scenes but none seemed to stick. We must have tried 20 or so. Do we go with a heavy mood or a light mood? Should we introduce Bassem first or Egypt? Finally Sara had the idea of starting the movie with a disclaimer, must like Bassem had on his show. It turned out to give the right amount of humor to contrast the very violent and context heavy following scene. Ultimately, I think it works well. When exploring such a heavy subject, it’s important to provide humor and moments of rest so the viewer isn’t overwhelmed.
Elena Mavrina (Assistant Editor): I think of all the transcribing we had to do and the challenges of dealing with language and cultural barriers. Working on this film I came to truly understand that it takes an army and a village to make a film. And if you want to make a really great film, having as diverse a team as we had makes all the difference.
Paul Tyan (Composer): The recording of the score was quite challenging but a lot of fun too. After all the music demos are locked, we started recording and spent a full week in the studio with musicians. This requires a lot of preparation (choosing the right performers, finalizing music sheets, etc.) and we ran on a tight schedule. We recorded a string section remotely with F.A.M.E’s orchestra in Macedonia. That experience was quite memorable, as the whole session was done via Skype (listening to their performance, giving feedback).
We put together a making-of that you can watch here: