The joke is on the ‘US and A’
He's been condemned by Kazhakstan and Gypsy and Jewish pressure groups, yet the real butt of Borat’s gags are rushing to the cinemas.
Borat Sagdiyev, the misogynist, anti-Semitic, homophobic Kazakhstani TV presenter who has never heard of political correctness and who was invented by British buffoon Sacha Baron Cohen, is so famous by now that he hardly requires a lengthy introduction.
Throughout his appearances on Da Ali G Show, in his hit ‘mocumentary’, his hosting of MTV awards and his various media stunts, Borat has insulted just about every minority group out there. When Kazhakstani foreign ministry spokesman, Yerzhan N Ashykbayev, denounced Cohen’s appearance at the MTV Europe Music Awards last year and said that his government reserved ‘the right to any legal action to prevent new pranks of this kind’, Borat responded: ‘I have no connection to Mr Cohen and fully support my government’s decision to sue this Jew.’
While the Kazakhstani embassy in the US produced television commercials and newspaper advertisements to depict its country in a more positive light, back home the Borat film was kept out of theatres. Meanwhile, the European Centre of Antiziganism Research accused Cohen of defaming and inciting violence against Gypsies. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which is dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism, issued a statement which empathised with Cohen’s ‘comedic technique’, explaining that he uses humour to ‘unmask the absurd and irrational side of anti-Semitism and other phobias born of ignorance and fear’. The ADL’s own fear, however, was that while it may be sufficiently clued-up, ‘the audience may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke, and some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry’.
But the shock factor of Borat is not just meant to lie in the character’s own undiscriminating and fearless bigotry, but also in the prejudices and xenophobia he teases out of ordinary white Americans, supposedly unmasking their deep-seated ignorance and narrow-mindedness. So why have there been no outcries over Borat perpetuating stereotypes of ‘the ignorant Yanks’ or inciting hatred against Americans? Maybe it’s because Borat is reinforcing and allowing us to indulge in the one stereotype we can all still cling to and express in public without being accused of offensiveness: Americans are stupid.
In the film, Borat, looking like a post-Soviet Union relic in his outmoded grey suit, Colgate smile, oversized moustache and 1980s hairdo, is sent by the Ministry of Information to travel across ‘the US and A’ for ‘cultural learnings of America for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan’. Just as the success of Cohen’s other characters, Ali G and Bruno, relies on their interviewees not knowing who they are, the unwitting New York pedestrians, Washington politicians, cowboys, college jocks and feminists that Borat bamboozles and baffles are also in the dark and caught off-guard. So, a Midwestern woman running a yard sale ends up explaining that she is not a gypsy touting her possessions, that the Barbie dolls on sale are not women she has shrunk through spells and that Borat will not be able to prevent AIDS by carrying samples of her tears in a jar. A college frat boy talks about Jews controlling America, a rodeo producer insults gays and Muslims, while the rodeo spectators cheer on Borat’s support for their country’s ‘war of terror’.
Undeniably, Cohen is brilliantly funny in his schizophrenic ability to fully immerse himself in different personas. The main weakness of this feature-length fake doc, however, is that the jokes and the character become worn out as Cohen, it seems, tries to outdo himself and outshock his audience. While his attention to detail in the Borat character, his irreverence and his daring pranks are still intact, the jokes often feel recycled. There are only so many times you can hear women described as prostitutes, for example, before it just gets dull. Some scenarios are recognisable from previous television sketches – like Borat’s tendency to show inappropriately revealing photos of his family members to strangers and his ever-failing efforts to learn American etiquette. A nude wrestling scene between Borat and his producer and travel companion Azamat Bagatov is almost unbearable to watch. It is in your face (quite literally), sexed-up college humour rather than the clever underhanded exposés that Cohen has managed so well in the past.
The most memorable episode from the Borat TV series is when he performs in a country-western club in Tucson, Arizona where he gets the audience to clap and sing along to the ‘Kazakhstani folk song’ In My Country There is a Problem. The chorus goes: ‘Throw the Jew down the well/so my country can be free/you must grab him by his horns/and then we’ll have a big party.’ That scene was truly shocking because it revealed something so unbelievable, but in the film Cohen mostly creates the anti-Semitic content himself. This includes his hometown’s traditional holiday ritual ‘the running of the Jew’ in which giant papier mache Jewish caricatures are chased down a dirt road by an ecstatic village crowd.
One wonders whether Cohen himself believes his vast audience to be sophisticated enough to recognise the classic caricatures – including Jews turning into cockroaches – and bigotry, or whether he thinks, like ADL, that people may laugh for the wrong reasons. Though that may well be the case, it seems the test is as much on the audience as the individuals on screen.
Cohen’s depiction of eastern Europeans, black people (or ‘chocolate-faces’), women, gays, and so on, have sparked reactions ranging from fury to praise. As it happens, the scenes from Kazakhstan were filmed in Romania and Borat speaks a mix of Hebrew, Polish and a made-up language while Azamat speaks Armenian. But Americans have not tried as hard as these various groups to challenge Borat’s representation of their country. Far from being outraged and rejecting the film, Americans have been rushing to the cinemas since the US premier last week. Here in Europe, Borat’s exploration of American wackiness has never been more popular.
Whether it’s Bush-bashing or slagging off white trash or the insularity of American suburbia, it seems the one prejudice we are still allowed to have is that the US is the land of the weird and the ignorant. As for Borat, one thing is clear – now that he, as Ali G before him, has become a world celebrity, he will never be the same again.
For a flavour of the movie, visit the Official Borat Homesite.
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