Borat: Cultural Learnings of America to Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Whether crossing those bounds makes this shock film satirical genius or offensive bigotry depends on your perspective.
After Borat opened Nov. 3, it became the No. 1 film at the U.S. box office, surpassing a record previously held by Fahrenheit 9/11 for the biggest opening weekend for a film released in fewer than 1,000 theaters. Pre-release buzz and 94 percent favorable reviews on RottenTomatoes.com, a web site that summarizes film reviews, show that many regard Borat as the funniest movie of the year. And there was plenty of laughter at the screening I attended, including from a woman whose very laugh was infectious and caused the laughter to spread. While there were scenes of sizzling satire, I found my conscience more often troubled by the nature of the humor.
The 84-minute “mockumentary” is based on a character created by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen from the “Da Ali G Show” on HBO. The plot is simple. Borat Sagdiyev is journalist from Kazakhstan who comes to America to make a documentary, encountering real Americans in real situations and using their unguarded responses in the film. After seeing an old Baywatch episode, he goes on a cross-country quest in an ice-cream truck to marry Pamela Anderson.
Borat is portrayed as the stereotypical foreign rube as well as an anti-Semitic, misogynistic, bigoted, ill-mannered and crude – but deceptively innocent -- guy. The R-rated film includes raw language, male frontal nudity, naked men wrestling, scatological gags and comments offensive to pretty much every group on the planet. The Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan, about which there is virtually no shred of truth in the film, has hired Western public-relations firms to deal with what their Washington embassy called “a one-man diplomatic wrecking ball.” (Indeed, Cohen has conducted counter-press conferences saying that the Kazakh diplomats are really double-agents from Uzbekistan. And if they don’t desist, Kazakhstan will “commence bombardment of their cities with catapults.”)
You’re probably getting the sense that Cohen relies on interviews with people who don’t realize the nature of his intentions in this film. Where the satire works, Americans are unmasked as they spew their own hatred and bigotry of their own free will, such as a gun-seller who recommends a particular gun for use in defense against Jews. Or consider the actual audience response to Borat’s remarks at a rodeo in Roanoke, Va. -- “We support your war of terror. (Big applause) May we show our support to our boys in Iraq? (Applause) May the US and A kill every single terrorist. (Loud applause) May George W. Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq. (Applause) May you destroy their country so for the next 1,000 years not even a single lizard will survive in their desert. (Loud applause)”
But Borat is nothing more than a foreign Archie Bunker from that ’70s TV show, “All in the Family.” Studies proved that not all viewers saw Archie’s comments as ignorant bigotry; many simply laughed in agreement. And Cohen simply pulls together all the worst American stereotypes of foreigners for cheap laughs.
Early in the film, Borat gets advice from a humor coach about the kind of humor that works in America. As Borat misfires on an offensive joke about someone with mental retardation, the coach says, “Here in America we try not to make fun of or be funny with things people do not choose.”
Borat ignores that advice in numerous instances as it perpetuates foul stereotypes or shames innocent bystanders for things as simple as physical appearance. At a dinner party in Alabama where six couples were hosting someone they thought was a foreign journalist, Borat points to two women beside him: “In my country, they would go crazy for these two.” Then he points to a minister’s wife: “(Her) not so much.”
As the government of Kazakhstan is finding out, Western media have unrivaled power to shape global opinion. A film like Borat simply manufactures an ugly caricature of foreigners and trumpets an even uglier American and Western mindset of cultural superiority over all.
No wonder a large portion of the world hates us.