Synopsis: Sacha Baron Cohen, the star and creator of HBO’s wildly popular Da Ali G Show, brings his truly original Kazakh character Borat Sagdiyev to the big screen for the first time. With a camera crew in tow and armed with a jar of gypsy tears “for protection,” Kazakhstan’s fourth most famous celebrity travels to the US and A to make a documentary. As he zigzags across the country, lovable Borat meets real people in real situations – with hilarious consequences.
eyelights: Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance. its ballsy humour.
eyesores: Sacha Baron Cohen’s insensitivity. its racist jokes.
“Jak się masz? My name-a Borat. I like you. I like sex. Is nice!”
I’m a fan of absurdist pranks. For instance, I was an early fan of Tom Green’s shtick, participating in the taping of one of the episodes of his local cable public-access show, ‘The Tom Green Show’, in the mid-’90s. But I didn’t like all of what he did; I sometimes felt that his stunts were genuinely insensitive of his targets (which often happened to be his parents).
I’m of a mind that, if comedy provokes reactions or makes statements in innocuous ways, then it’s fair game. But, the moment that it breaks the law or is damaging to people, then it becomes a more dubious brand of “humour”. It’s a question of balancing personal and societal responsibility and civility with a healthy amount of irreverence and anarchic spirit.
Yeah. It’s not an easy thing to do.
After all, who gets to draw the lines?
In the last couple of decades, in North America, there’s been a growing pushback against political correctness – in the form of a defense of freedom of expression at all costs. This has led to an increasing number of instances where prejudice, hatred, propaganda and even the outright fabrication of “facts” are spewed – all in the name of this much-vaunted “freedom of speech”.
Freedom is important, yes, but so is personal responsibility.
Much in the same way that it would be irresponsible to drive on the wrong side of the road, or on the sidewalk, ignoring the boundaries that society has put in place merely because it’s personally inconvenient is wreckless. Though it might be amusing in theory, perhaps even in practice, to flaunt the rules, a delicate balance is struck in society for many good reasons.
One doesn’t just ignore rules one finds objectionable: one works to change them.
It’s the most responsible way.
That leads me to ‘Borat!’, the 2006 smash hit conceived by and starring Sacha Baron Cohen. The picture, which is subtitled “Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” proposes a pseudo-documentary about a “Kazakh” journalist who is sent to the United States by his country to make a documentary on American society.
I was very reticent to see this film, though it was extremely popular and had been recommended many times over; I’d heard enough about it that I knew it would trigger me on some levels. In fact, one of my best friends, who freely admits that he isn’t the most politically-correct person, saw only part of it because it had offended his calloused sensitivities.
Fast forward to recent times: after dinner, one evening, one of my other friends insisted that I see it, saying that it was her all-time favourite comedy. I really did my utmost to challenge, distract and even sidestep, but it was to no avail: despite myself, I was destined to watch ‘Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan’.
Well, truth be told, I didn’t hate it.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty to be offended by in ‘Borat!’. There really is. But it’s not a wholly unlikable or irredeemable film, either: anchored as it is in Cohen’s cartoon rendition of an Eastern European (which evokes the nebbishness of Alan Arkin but combines it with the comic genius of Peter Sellers), it even offers a few moments that are quite entertaining.
Still, it is quite racist on many levels. And the problem is that, under the guise of illustrating the absurdity of people’s prejudices, it actually traffics in them, thereby unwittingly cementing misplaced preconceptions about a variety of cultures. In the unlikely event that these views are, in fact, rooted in reality, somehow, then this film is unmitigatedly demeaning.
‘Borat!’s biggest targets are Jews, with the next ones in line being homosexuals, and then women. He also pokes fun at American bigots by putting them in the spotlight. Except that this tactic can sometimes serve to normalize and entrench behaviour, not ridicule it – especially since it doesn’t explicitly illustrate or comment on how narrow-minded these views are.
A perfect example of the movie’s lackadaisical condemnation of unsavoury behaviour and beliefs is when our eager tour guide shows us around his (fictitious) hometown and comments with a shrug: “Here’s the town rapist… naughty, naughty”. Firstly, I don’t think that rape is funny. Secondly, by making light of rape and rapists it minimizes the severity of the crime.
Clearly, Borat (or Cohen, really) has never been raped.
Otherwise, he’d empathize, not mock.
Cohen is of Jewish descent. But even that doesn’t excuse the incredible amount of anti-Semitic comments and gags that fill this movie. The biggest problem is that Borat is likeable, which makes even his most misguided statements somewhat more acceptable. So, though Cohen is poking fun at simple-minded bigots, it backfires and becomes forgivable behaviour.
I took particular offense at “The Running of the Jew 2004” competition in his hometown, a deeply racist “event” which promotes ancient prejudices, like monstrous-looking Jews with green faces chasing after money. Or the fact that Borat believes that Jews are shape-changers so, when he sees cockroaches in his room, he thinks that they’re Jews in an alternate form.
(For the record, I know few people of Jewish descent, so I’m not being biased here. I just think it’s f-ing insensitive and irresponsible to propagate racist views this way.)
Clearly, the portions that I found the funniest were when Borat made a jack-@$$ of himself in public, like taking a dump in a bush in the middle of downtown New York, pulling the pud with his hand down his pants while looking at a store display, or trying to act “urban” by pulling his pants low and talking in “faux gangsta” while trying to secure a high-end hotel room.
That was silly, absurd and funny.
I also liked when he just put a camera in the face of some fairly bizarre behaviour to highlight it, like when he goes to a cultish Pentecostal gathering and shows people dancing crazily, ranting, and trying to convert him, or when he shows up at the Imperial Rodeo and makes an extreme pro-American statement and then sings a bastardized national anthem for the crowd.
There he ruffled feathers, but didn’t flat-out insult anyone.
Or cause harm.
His embarrassing pratfall in an antique shop, however, was uncalled for: he not only destroyed property, he also engineered distrust of foreigners in that poor old couple. It doesn’t matter if he repaid them: antiquarians aren’t just about money, they frequently cherish the items they’re selling because of their artisanal or historical value. So this must have been shocking.
If not heartbreaking.
And then there’s the dinner at the Magnolia Mansion, after taking etiquette lessons, when Borat actually insults one of the women by saying the other two are desirable but she isn’t. Unless she was a plant, this would have been extremely insensitive, if not hurtful. Plus which he offended her husband, who also happened to be present. This was totally uncalled for.
I did find his visit to their bathroom hilarious, though.
The crux of ‘Borat!’, though, is his quest for Pamela Anderson’s hand in marriage. And it’s fittingly the climax, with Borat going to one of her book signings and “attempting to kidnap her” – obviously, Anderson was in on the joke or else the film would have risked scuttling its key narrative. And, yes, she has since publicly admitted to being in on it right at the onset.
But it’s still an interesting encounter when you consider the reactions of the people there.
There’s been a lot of controversy around ‘Borat!’ because Cohen set up a lot of people for fools; though they signed release forms prior to filming, they had no idea what they were getting into. So, unsurprisingly, the filmmakers were sued by a number of the participants for all sorts of damages after the worldwide hit found them plastered everywhere.
They became international laughing-stocks.
I’m surprised that they all lost their cases: ‘Borat!’ is edited in such a way as to make its participants look more foolish than they likely were; it’s not a documentary so much as a piece of cinematic trickery. In fact, you can tell that multiple cameras (and sometimes different takes!) were used: it’s all staged, even if the participants’ reactions might not have been.
It’s fiction, not fact.
But I guess that’s what makes ‘Borat!’ so brilliant and so dangerous at once: some people will watch this as cinema vérité, when it’s actually satire. It’s a caricature of reality. From that perspective, it’s a fairly impressive work – even as it crosses lines that it shouldn’t and perhaps accomplishes the opposite of what it intended. It deserves both the plaudits and criticism it gets.
Ultimately, I just hope that it doesn’t reinforce prejudices – not just in its audiences, but in its victims too.
We can sorely afford more hatred and ignorance these days.
And that’s no laughing matter.
Date of viewing: October 21, 2016