Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Directed by Larry Charles
2006, Twentieth Century Fox, Rated R
Actor Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is hilarious but problematic. Good intentions behind the film are undermined by the potentially negative social consequences of the film’s popularity.
The filmmakers intended to point out a vile underbelly of racism, sexism, misogyny and ignorance in U.S. society, but Borat actually displays the sort of insensitivity and chauvinism Cohen wanted to undermine.
Borat Sagdiyev, played by Cohen, and his manager come to the U.S. in an effort to make a documentary on American life. Shortly after his arrival, Borat becomes obsessed with marrying actress Pamela Anderson. Borat interacts with “average” Americans: extreme Pentecostal Christians, those who wish that the Confederate states would have won, and college frat boys who talk about how useless “bitches” can be.
The film’s format is creative with much the same style as reality-based shows like MTV’s “Punk’d.” Real people are unknowingly filmed in bizarre situations. For example, Borat tells a Texas rodeo audience, over howls and cheers, that he wants to see George Bush “drink the blood” of the Iraqi people. Many don’t realize they are being filmed. Unlike “Punk’d” or “Jackass,” these semi-real scenes are not independent vignettes, but are incorporated into a fictional movie.
This innovation is also the problem. The filmmakers decided whom to film in order to get the reaction they wanted. Not everyone in an audience would applaud calling for the U.S. president to drink the blood of innocents. But due to tricky editing, Borat implies this as fact. The filmmakers went out of their way to find people who would be the vilest, the most anti-Semitic, racist and chauvinist, and left out anyone who challenged the “stupid American” stereotype.
Later, Borat is portrayed as depressed, and seeks solace in a Pentecostal church. As an atheist, I’m not fond of Pentecostal religious services. But the churchgoers go out of their way to help Borat, and even take a collection for him. The movie holds these people up to needless scorn.
Borat, since he is from such a presumably backwards and useless nation as Kazakhstan, is an extreme misogynist and anti-Semite. What else can you expect from a nation where, Borat suggests, men marry 4-year-olds? (Borat married one six years ago, and now he “thinks she’s ready,” he says.)
Kazakhstan’s government has generally taken the jokes in stride, but the people in the village in Romania where the supposed Kazakh scenes were shot were not so pleased. Unhappy that rich filmmakers were mocking their poverty, the villagers – who were told they were to be part of an anti-poverty documentary – sued and won.
Borat, despite its admittedly hilarious scenes, imitates all the behaviors it seeks to mock – the jokes are just aimed at a different group – the American people. Obviously the mock anti-Semitism and homophobia are intended to poke fun at these troublesome ideologies. The problem is that the movie makes them seem omnipresent in American society. Isn’t this the same country where millions are in favor of gay marriage?
Shock, vulgarity: these things often add a great deal to humor. (See “The Aristocrats” if you don’t believe me.) The problem, though, is that this film reinforces all the stereotypes of Americans as backwards, racist, and homophobic. These currents definitely exist within our society, but they do not define it, as Borat suggests.
Still, it’s a fun movie, and it’s worth seeing at least for that. Hopefully, though, its international release would reinforce negative stereotypes – they are already being strengthened enough by the current administration.