Filmmaker op-ed: Sara Taksler on her 'low-fi, non-traditional' Emmy campaign for acclaimed doc 'Tickling Giants'
Film focuses on Egyptian comedian who dared lampoon the mighty; director writes, 'I believe in the power of satire.'
By Sara Taksler
Last week, my husband stood in his pajamas and filmed me as I dropped pieces of paper onto the floor. We stood in our living room early in the morning, before I had to leave for my job, filming a Love Actually style paper-dropping plea to Emmy voters. Every lamp in our dark apartment was used to light the space, and we shot it on our phones. It was super low-fi, but that was the idea.
In a sea of fancy ads and million dollar marketing budgets for documentaries, I know we can’t compete. So, we’re trying the only thing we can do, going in the opposite direction by having a low-budget campaign focusing on humor and heart.
We’ve got a music video for when you want to dance, a call to action video for when you want to get inspired, and a video game available on iOS and Android for when you want to sit on your butt.
I was inspired by recent Oscar-winner Heaven Is A Traffic Jam On The 405, a little documentary short that could. Up against big budget distributors, Heaven was able to make a big impact through online marketing. The lesson here is, if you can stand out on basic web platforms, you may be able to skip the fancy stuff and still remain competitive.
Last summer, I got off the subway near Penn Station in the middle of New York City. A billboard several stories high advertised a feature documentary. I figured it would be a big competitor in the year’s Oscars. It went home the winner. I certainly don’t begrudge them. If I had the budget, Tickling Giants would have 10 billboards, right outside your house. For my Oscar campaign, I went as far as my budget could go: screenings, DVD mailers, and IDA blasts. But it was a drop in the bucket compared to what some other documentaries could do. And I don’t have the budget to even try that method again. So, for our Emmy campaign, we’re trying a non-traditional approach instead.
An Emmy nomination means more people will see the movie and discuss free speech, abuse of power, and what it means to be an immigrant coming to the U.S. at this time.
Tickling Giants actually has it way easier than some documentaries. Our movie tells the story of Bassem Youssef, the “Egyptian Jon Stewart”. Bassem’s story, about using comedy to shed light on abuses of power, has sparked media attention and we’ve been able to get great press. But when it comes to basic marketing and familiarity that comes when you see a name in ads everywhere, we have to think creatively. We’ve got a music video for when you want to dance, a call to action video for when you want to get inspired, and a video game available on iOS and Android for when you want to sit on your butt. Is it enough to get the attention of Emmy voters? I have no idea. But we’re trying because I believe in the message of Tickling Giants. I know that an Emmy nomination means more people will see the movie and discuss free speech, abuse of power, and what it means to be an immigrant coming to the U.S. at this time.
As world leaders from Egypt’s President al-Sisi to America’s President Trump demonize the press and comedians, citizens in their countries are urged to trade free speech for a perception of safety. Reporters Without Borders notes that, increasingly, democratic countries are hampering press freedoms, with last year being the most dangerous on record for journalists. President Trump announced that the media is the “country’s biggest enemy” and has called for the cancellation of Samantha Bee's TBS show, and has criticized Michelle Wolf and Alec Baldwin. In Egypt, Bassem faced protests, death threats, and had to escape imprisonment, all because of satire. Bassem’s story is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a president’s abuse of the media goes unchecked.
We are foolish if we think what happened to Bassem can’t happen here.
I met Bassem when he and a few of his producers came to observe The Daily Show, where I worked as a producer for 12 years. They were doing the exact same work I did, but with such high stakes. At the time, I couldn’t imagine having a president who sought to destroy trust in media. We are foolish if we think what happened to Bassem can’t happen here.
Tickling Giants shows how an ordinary person, like Bassem, can make a difference if they find creative, non-violent ways to be heard when they see an abuse of power. Bassem and his team endured great challenges to tell jokes. As a witness to their story, I only got the tiniest taste of the challenges they faced to tell jokes. We had to stop filming outdoors when one of our camera people was beaten up and had his footage stolen. The person attacking him wanted to know, “Whose side are you on?,” but we didn’t have a political side to support, we just wanted to tell the story of a comedian making a difference. From then on, most of our outdoor shots were taken from a moving car.
We had to stop filming outdoors when one of our camera people was beaten up and had his footage stolen.
One day during a protest at the theater, Bassem’s team asked me to go inside because there was speculation that Bassem worked for the CIA and they were afraid the presence of an American would incite violence. As people shouted death threats towards the office, I filmed the team from inside the building, trying to get decent shots as my hands were shaky with nerves. Bassem’s staff members were convinced the government had their office bugged, so it was difficult to speak completely freely. In my hotel, I felt unable to tell family back home what the environment was like or even to write in my journal because this was the same hotel where Al Jazeera journalists were arrested. Even if you were doing nothing wrong and even if no one was watching you, the government was successful at convincing people they might be.
Now is the time to tell these types of stories. Now is the time to support journalists. Now is the time to support comedians. I believe in the power of satire. It is times like these that a society needs it most.
Author's note: During the month of June, Tickling Giants is available on iTunes for the low, low price of $0.99. Buy a copy that you’ll be able to trade for three goats in the sure-to-be-coming-soon barter economy.
FYC: Tickling Giants has been submitted for Emmy consideration in the following categories:
About the author
Sara Taksler is the director of two feature-length documentaries, Tickling Giants and Twisted: A Balloonamentary, and the documentary short Stop the Ignorance: The Beauty That Is New Jersey. A former senior producer of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, she currently serves as supervising producer on Comedy Central's The Opposition with Jordan Klepper. She is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and possesses the rare ability to talk backwards and what has been described as "a remarkable fake sneeze."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.