Q&A With Director Sara Taksler
How did you get involved in Tickling Giants?
I first decided to make Tickling Giants in June of 2012. Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian heart surgeon recently turned political satirist, was in New York visiting The Daily Show, where I’m a Senior Producer and have worked for the past 10 years. When I met Bassem, he didn’t have the show before a live audience yet and he wasn’t such a huge star. But I found it interesting that he was doing what I do, but with such higher stakes. I love taking a serious issue and finding a cathartic way to process it through humor. Bassem was doing just that, but while under the microscope of a country where free speech was not settled law. Also, Bassem brought a few female producers with him and I was really curious about what it would be like to be my counterpart, in Egypt. So on the first day we met, I asked him if I could make a documentary about him and he said yes. It was a little impulsive, but I had recently been dumped and leaving the continent felt like a good idea.
Do you get dumped a lot?
Really? That’s what you got from that story?
Sorry. Well, deciding to film in Egypt must have been exciting.
No, I immediately regretted it! What had I done? Not many people know this. But Egypt is located in Egypt. I’m the kind of person who always wears a seatbelt, a bike helmet, and if it were an option, I would wear a seatbelt, while on my bike. Now, I was volunteering to go to a country in revolution. A place where my country’s state department was actively discouraging Americans from traveling. I decided to sit on the idea for awhile, because I was afraid to really go for it.
You’re kind of a scaredy cat.
That’s kind of you to notice. While that happens to be true, it was also a hard decision. There were people in Egypt literally dying in a fight to express themselves. And I was afraid. Seven months before I met Bassem, I became more acutely aware of the value of my own life. My friend Tara, my best friend since 4th grade, died unexpectedly. I became both more eager to add value to the world, and more afraid of things that might put me at risk. This film seemed like an opportunity for both. I nervously sat on the idea for Tickling Giants for months, thinking about it every single day.
What ended up being the impetus to really go for it?
Bassem was called into court, accused of making jokes about government and religion. I realized how important this story was, and how privileged I was to have an opportunity to tell it. This may sound cheesy, but I was reading the book Lean In which asks the question, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”. The next day I contacted Bassem and made plans to start filming.
Have you previously worked in documentary film?
In 2007, I made a documentary, with my friend Naomi Greenfield, called TWISTED: A Balloonamentary. As I’m sure you all know, that film was about balloon-twisting conventions. After premiering at the South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW), the film went on to play at 15 film festivals, was released theatrically in 10 cities, and received positive reviews. I knew the work that goes into making a documentary and decided to never do it again. But after meeting Bassem, I was ready to go back on that plan.
What did you want to tell with the story of Tickling Giants?
Tickling Giants is about a guy who is just telling jokes, and yet his voice is so much louder and more articulate than the people a few blocks away who are shooting each other. We are all faced with giants - people who abuse their power. It is up to us to decide how to stand up to that. Statistically, it seems unlikely that too many of us will become famous comedians when our countries fall into revolution. But, we all have opportunities to be leaders on issues big and small, finding our own non-violent ways to start Tickling Giants.
Did a lot of people watch Bassem’s show?
The show was a force of nature. 30 million people in Egypt watched each episode. By comparison, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart averaged about two million viewers a night.
Did you start spreading the word about the movie immediately when you began filming?
We were concerned about getting any attention while we were filming. Egypt is a dangerous place for journalists, so I did not mention going to Egypt on any kind of social media until we finished filming.
There is a lot of anxiety in Egypt that you are being observed by the government. I was staying in the hotel where the Al Jazeera team was arrested, and there was a general feeling of fear for anyone filming anything. One of my camera guys was beaten up when he filmed people watching Bassem’s show. As time went on, we filmed outside less and less because of arrests of camera people in Egypt. For this reason, I shot most of the b-roll on my little point and shoot camera, from a moving car. All of this concern was compounded by me being a female, traveling alone. One night, while eating a late dinner at my hotel, a man at the table next to me stared at me the whole time. When I left the restaurant he followed me around for 10 minutes, whichever way I turned. I was afraid to leave the lobby. Then, Bassem happened to call. When I told him what was going on, he laughed and said, “He wants you, baby! He’s flirting with you!” Everyone at the office the next day confirmed Bassem’s suspicion. There were certain cultural norms I had to get used to.
Did you feel safe filming in Egypt?
I actually felt very safe as a general rule. I spent most of the time in Bassem’s office and everyone there couldn’t have been nicer and made me feel completely at home. Because of budgetary constraints, I couldn’t bring any crew with me, but my local crew took great care of me. However, there were times that were scary. Bassem’s publicist suggested I not come for one of the shoots because things were becoming volatile. Bassem and I talked on the phone and he assured me, “Worst case scenario, a Daily Show producer dies at my office and I get tons of press.” Who wouldn’t want to help a friend out like that? So, I decided to go. We were filming at the office and protesters started arriving. I was shown an escape route in case things went south. I was trying to film on a second camera but my hands were literally shaking. Everyone in the office was nervous and frustrated, but then, something beautiful happened. They started laughing and telling jokes and going on with their day, undeterred by the ugliness. I was so inspired.
How was the office of The Show different than the environment at The Daily Show?
The two offices have an incredibly similar vibe. The main difference is that one has a bunch of Ahmed’s while the other has a lot of Adam’s. I won’t tell you which is which.
Do you speak Arabic?
I don’t and I couldn’t afford a translator. While interviews were mostly done in English, all the other shoots were a challenge. I never fully knew what was going on in the office until we finished shooting and my camera people would fill me in. But I found that it didn’t matter that much, because while I didn’t know what was being said, I could feel the emotion of any given moment. In movies, what is said matters as much as how you say it. Feeling if a moment is funny or serious or stressful comes through, regardless of language.
Is there a “right time” for comedy?
To me, there isn’t a wrong time for comedy or for speaking truth to power. Now is always the right time to speak out. I don’t believe that every joke is well-timed or universally appreciated, but if you have a desire to find humor, there’s probably a right joke to be made. Bassem was giving people something they couldn’t get anywhere else. People in Egypt have this great sense of humor and there’s a guy giving them a way to laugh while their country is in this awful turmoil. It’s an incredible gift.
Are you still working at The Daily Show?
I am still working at The Daily Show, which means working 7 days a week. I go edit every night after work and on weekends. When I finish, I am going to sleep for three days straight, then catch up on a bunch of reality shows, and then sleep for four more days.
Has this schedule negatively affected your mental health?
Is it that obvious? Probably, but I really love making this movie.
How did you fund the film?
As many independent filmmakers do, I started a crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo. My goal was to raise $150,000 of the $400,000 we needed through donations. I sent emails about the campaign to everyone I knew and many of them were kind enough to forward it on to their friends. One of these people was Lynn, a friend of my best friend Tara, who had died unexpectedly a couple years before. Lynn shared the link with a bunch of people and it wound up on the computer of a woman named Lorie. She had the trailer up on her computer and her husband happened to sit down and watch it. His name is Frederic Rose and he happens to be the CEO of Technicolor!
That sounds made up. Is that true?
Totally true! The next day I got an email telling me to call Fred because he wanted Technicolor to be an Executive Producer of the film. A few hours later we were on the phone and Fred told me, “364 days a year it’s my job to make this company money. Today, I get to do something nice.” I was told that Technicolor wants to support emerging filmmakers making films on important topics. They didn’t want creative control, they just wanted to help me make the best version of my film. It was too good to be true. Technicolor is covering funding for my editing team, animation, graphics, visual effect, color and sound. They made this film so much bigger than it ever would have been. I won a lottery I had not entered.
How long did it take you to believe this wasn’t a prank?
I’m still not totally certain.
Isn’t there a super special fun fact about this?
I got to know Lynn because she and I started an Acts of Kindness site in memory of Tara. http://ttgactsofkindness.tumblr.com/ And then, through Lynn, I ended up getting this really amazing Act of Kindness from Technicolor.
How did you come up with the title for Tickling Giants?
I was interviewing Andeel, a writer on the show and a political cartoonist. I described to him the essence of the film - people speaking up to power in their own non-violent ways. Andeel spontaneously drew a picture of Bassem holding a feather, tickling the rather large foot of a giant. When I looked at that, I decided to make that the inspiration for the title.
What do you want people to take away from watching Tickling Giants?
Anyone, big or small, can have their ideas heard if they figure out their own way to express themselves non-violently. Most people have daily interaction with some abuse of power. It might be a kid bullied on a playground or a boss that takes advantage. It might be a huge issue that you’re really passionate about and you just haven’t found a way to support that cause. But the core idea in Tickling Giants is to leave people inspired by a team of ordinary people that risked their own comfort and, by doing so, found a way to be heard and to influence change.