Sara Taksler doesn’t consider herself a daredevil. She’s the type of person who regularly checks her smoke detector’s batteries and always wears a helmet when she goes out cycling.
So what draws a generally cautious, measured woman from Princeton Junction to make a documentary of an outspoken mega-celebrity whose story could have gotten them (and their crew) arrested? Or beaten up? Or both?
Well, for one thing, the 38-year-old Taksler didn’t actually realize just how risky it would be to tell the story of Bassem Youssef when she set out to make Tickling Giants.
She just saw a really interesting story of a guy she’d gotten to know while she was working for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. The size and scope of who Bassem Youssef was was not evident yet.
“I didn’t know the stakes would be so much higher,” she said. “I probably would have been too scared to make [the film] if I did know that.”
To understand why Taksler might have been spooked away from the project requires understanding of who Bassem Youssef is. Americans who know his name almost certainly know him from The Daily Show, on which he was a guest in 2012. They also might know him as “Egypt’s Jon Stewart.” The surgeon-turned-satirist began skewering the Egyptian government in short bursts on YouTube in 2010, and in grand, sweeping fashion a year later on a nationally televised show.
The stakes Taksler mentioned have to do with the fact that Egypt has a famously humorless government that doesn’t like to be poked, and the fact that Youssef’s show took off during the Arab Spring. And because it immediately was insanely popular.
To put the reach of Youssef’s show, Al-Bernameg, in perspective, think of how famous Jon Stewart is in the United States. In a country of 300 million or so, Stewart’s show had a steady 2 million-plus audience. In Egypt, a country of almost 90 million at the time Al-Bernameg (literally “The Show” in Egyptian Arabic) ran, Youssef had a regular audience of about 40 million per broadcast.
And like Stewart, Youssef’s humor was directed, usually savagely, at the ruling class, who didn’t approve. Unlike Stewart, Youssef eventually had a warrant issued for his arrest and worried for his safety around the clock. By 2013, Al-Bernameg went off the air in an act Youssef considered to be a last protest against the curtailing of free speech.
Back in New York, Sara Taksler thought the nexus of free speech, Arab Spring rebellion, and humorous talk show modeled after the one she worked for would be compelling. The day she met Youssef at The Daily Show, she said, she asked if she could make a documentary of his story. She didn’t realize what she was getting into.
Her former boss, Stewart, was no stranger to controversy and criticism. But Taksler said she simply did not grasp what a freedom it was to be able to speak out against absolutely anybody in the constitutionally governed United States.
The reality of just how risky it was for Youssef to do the same in Egypt became clear about as soon as she got there to film the Egyptian segments of the movie.
“It was difficult to film in Egypt,” Taksler said. “They have a different feeling about taking pictures or taking video there. People would walk up and ask, ‘Who are you?’ and “Are you promoting a different side?’”
It wasn’t just verbally expressed discomfort. “One camera guy got beaten up for his footage,” she said. While she was in country, an Al-Jazeera journalist was arrested too. “It was scary. I wasn’t even comfortable writing in my journal.”
Taksler went to Egypt in 2015 by herself and hired a local crew. She doesn’t speak Arabic and needed locals to help her navigate the geography and the rules. This came in handy because it didn’t take long for her to learn that filming outside in Egypt was legitimately dangerous. She and the crew often filmed from inside a car or through a window. Anything to keep the film going while keeping out of sight.
And yes, keeping the film going meant money. But avoiding attention meant Taksler couldn’t raise funds for Tickling Giants while she was in Egypt, so her shoot there was entirely self-funded. The several weeks of self-funding ended when she got back to the States.
“The second I could start funding, I did,” Taksler said. She set up an IndieGoGo page to raise the remaining funds to finish the film, which, as is the norm, was slow going and involved a lot of asking around while she was trying to wrap things up.
Despite being in the television industry in the world’s media capital, Taksler said putting the film together was challenging. She often had to do interviews via Skype while her crew in Egypt got footage, and though “It’s who you know” is an oft-cited mantra among people in show business, Taksler’s many connections in the New York scene couldn’t help much with her project.
She did manage to find an executive producer in an unusual way. Taksler’s best friend since age 3 was Tara Troy, who died in 2011 at age 32. Taksler set up an Acts of Kindness page in memoriam, through which she made the acquaintance of a woman (Lynn) who knew another woman whose husband was a man named Frederic Rose.
A few years later, when Taksler set out to make Tickling Giants, she sent her IndieGoGo page link to Lynn, who in turn sent it on to her friend. Frederic Rose came across the page and was immediately struck by a documentary about free speech amid aggressive oppression.
Why that’s important is because Frederic Rose is the chairman and CEO of Technicolor, and Technicolor is a French company. And why that is important is because French media companies in 2015 were very much aware of the price and value of free speech and satire in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, in which 12 employees of the satirical magazine were killed and another 11 injured by gunmen for having published cartoons that poked fun at Islam.
Technicolor, Taksler said, offered in-kind services to finish the film, like graphics, animation, editing, translation, color and sound. These in-kind services were gold, but, as gold does, it added to the budget of the film. Taksler originally set a budget of $400,000 and anticipated having to raise at least $150,000 through crowdfunding, according to an article published through IVOH.com (Images and Voices of Hope). But that budget grew.
“When I did the IndieGoGo, that’s what I thought it would be,” Taksler wrote in an email. “It ended up being higher with all of the in-kind services from Technicolor. I’d rather not list a specific number.”
Suffice to say, Taksler found enough money to finish the film and to set out on a U.S. tour, to colleges and other locations where the film would play. Sometimes she would be able to attend a screening, sometimes not, but the crew largely distributed Tickling Giants on its own. The film has, however, managed to score a television deal with Starz Network. Tickling Giants will air on Starz on Dec. 18. She also has an online distribution deal through a company called Gravitas.
Tickling Giants is not Taksler’s first foray into documentary filmmaking. That actually occurred shortly after she graduated from West Windsor-Plainsboro High School (Class of 1997, when there was only the one high school in the district). Her mother was a special education teacher in the district.
When she got to Washington University in St. Louis (where she majored in psychology and business), Taksler tired of the image people had of New Jersey and made “Stop the Ignorance: The Beauty of New Jersey.” And no, the film is nowhere anyone could see it these days.
Taksler then did what a lot of new college grads do—she got a job at a restaurant. In Australia. When she came back to the States, she knew she wanted to be in media and worked a couple gigs as a production assistant for small projects. Then she saw an ad looking for a receptionist at a new comedy show in New York, where she now lives which her husband, Zohar Adner, who runs a company specializing in flash mobs and events.
She got the job on what turned out to be “Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn.” She progressed from receptionist to production assistant to executive assistant, and then the show got cancelled.
Taksler freelanced for a while, but found she didn’t so much enjoy the carnival lifestyle being a freelancer entails. A friend who worked on The Daily Show told her to apply for an opening as a researcher, and in 2006 she started as a field researcher — the complement to a studio researcher, which she became about two years later.
In 2007 Taksler made her first professional film, Twisted: A Balloonamentary, which follows several professional balloon twisters and the conventions they frequent. That film became a SXSW official entry.
Taksler worked as a senior producer on The Daily Show from 2008 to 2016. Today she is a supervising producer on The Opposition with Jordan Klepper, and, of course, the producer and director of Tickling Giants.
The reception Tickling Giants has garnered has surprised Taksler. Not because she’s surprised people would like it, but because of who the people who like it are. She had expected the typical Daily Show viewer to like it—progressives, in other words—but she didn’t expect staunch conservatives like Glenn Beck (who has recommended that people check out the film) and the Koch Brothers (the Koch network asked to screen it), to be big fans.
What she’s found out is that Tickling Giants is seen across party lines as a tale about the value of free speech and the importance of fighting for it if there’s so much as a suggestion of it being curtailed. The country might be polarized on many things, but Taksler said people on the left and right are adamant supporters of freedom of speech.
It’s just that while progressives are fighting against the censorship of media, conservatives are fighting against censorship on college campuses. But neither side, she has come to see, wants freedom of speech to disappear.
Having now made a film about a censored man, whose very life was in jeopardy because of the things he said, and having gotten broad pan-partisan praise for her film, Taksler said she is hopeful about the fact that there is such an important common ground Americans agree on. She is also inspired by Bassem Youssef’s “creative nonviolence” approach to the fight for freedom.
And she feels braver in her creative approach. When in Egypt, she was scared of the mayhem that was happening outside the studio where she was working—mere blocks from where people were dying for the right to rebel against what they saw as a troublesome regime. Her colleagues were nervous too. But they showed up for work every day, to work on a project about someone who was, charitably put, a figure of controversy. Taksler learned early to follow those colleagues’ lead.
“I said, ‘I’m going to take my cue from them. If they can come to work, I can.’ When I came back home, it made me more confident and resolute.”