November 2, 2006
If Borat has offended ... then he’s done his job
But with its nationwide opening set for Friday, the question now is whether a mass, mainstream audience will also get the film's satiric sensibilities, or, rather, be offended by its political incorrectness and by its lead character, who is a raging anti-Semite.
"Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" is a "mockumentary" starring British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat Sagdiyev, a cheerfully impudent, male-chauvinistic Kazakh journalist. He road-trips across America, speaking comically mangled English and constantly doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. His interactions mostly are with unwitting, everyday Americans who have been led to believe by filmmakers that Cohen's alter ego, Borat, is the real thing.
The humor in the film, which is directed by Larry Charles, is sometimes raunchy, especially a nude wrestling match between Borat and his heavyset producer, Azamat Bagatov (Kenny Davitian). And it is sometimes bitingly politically satirical -- "We support your war of terror," Borat tells a rodeo crowd before massacring "The Star-Spangled Banner." Borat fears Jews so much he has nightmarish hallucinations when forced to board with an elderly Jewish couple. He and his producer also choose to drive across America because they're scared Jews would hijack their plane, "like they did on 9/11."
Cohen, 35, is a modern-day Ernie Kovacs in his ability to subsume his personality in his comic creations. He is best known in the U.S. for playing the gay French NASCAR driver Jean Girard in "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby." But in Britain he became a star as the obnoxiously slow-witted rapper/talk-show host Ali G, which acquired a cult U.S. following when HBO's "Da Ali G Show" was broadcast in 2003. Borat was a character on that show.
Because "Borat's" anti-Semitism is so flagrant, the film raises some ethical questions. Is Cohen, who is Jewish and studied history at Christ's College at Cambridge, crossing a line with his character's anti-Semitism? And is his rendering of the central Asian nation of Kazakhstan as a stewpot of anti-Semites, child abusers, prostitutes and generally crude people too cruel?
According to answers.com, Cohen was born in the London-adjacent suburb Staines to a middle-class Jewish family -- his father, originally from Wales, was the owner of a London menswear shop. Cohen has what the site calls an "active Zionist background," including involvement in the Jewish youth movement Habonim Dror. His mother is an Israeli-born Iranian, and, according to answers.com, he told NPR in a 2004 interview that he wrote his college thesis on Jewish involvement in the American civil rights movement.
Borat's anti-Semitism has folkloric, fantastical roots in his nation's culture, as depicted in the film. It envisions, for instance, a "traditional" Kazakh "Running of the Jew" event, similar to Pamplona's "running of the bulls." And the Kazakhs are portrayed as simple, backward peasants -- Borat mistakes a hotel elevator for his room in New York and carries a chicken onto the subway.
"I saw the movie yesterday," said Roman Y. Vassilenko, an ambassadorial assistant and press secretary for Kazakhstan's U.S. embassy, when interviewed last week. "Like Jonathan Swift wrote 'Gulliver's Travels' and invented a country, Lilliput, to make a satire of England, this is the same thing. He invents a Kazakhstan in order to make a satire of a very different country."
Just to make sure the public realizes that "Borat's" Kazakhstan is not the real one, the embassy has released an official statement on the movie. It reads in part: "Kazakhstan, a Muslim majority country, is home to 130 ethnic groups and 40 religious faiths. Pope John Paul II, who visited Kazakhstan in 2001, called our country 'an example of harmony between men and women of different origins and beliefs.'" (The nation has a sizeable Russian Orthodox minority.)
Cohen himself isn't talking. Or, rather, he's talking only in character. Two weeks ago, he came to Santa Monica's Shutters on the Beach resort hotel for a "Borat" press conference, standing at a podium with an official-looking Kazakhstan emblem on it. Tall and dressed in a neat if staid suit, bearing a bright smile to contrast with his dark bushy brows and hair, he did what amounted to a comedy act. Questions had to be submitted in advance.
"Good evening, gentleman and prostitutes," he began, in halting, bumbling, heavily accented English. He said he admired "mighty warlord George Walter Bush" as a "very strong man but perhaps not as strong as his father, Barbara."
Asked whom he'd most like to meet, he mentioned "fearless anti-Jew warrior Melvin Gibsons. We in Kazakhstan agree with his statement Jews started all the wars. We also have evidence they killed off the dinosaurs. Hurricane Katrina, too. They did it."
Cohen's satiric target may well be America and its anti-Semitism, believes Joel Schalit, managing editor of the liberal Jewish magazine Tikkun. And in "Borat," he may be drawing from world history to get at it.
"I see a film like 'Borat' as a very roundabout, tongue-in-cheek way of exploring that," Schalit said.
A parallel can be drawn between Cohen's imaginary Kazakhstan and the early 20th-century Russian peasants who accepted the fraudulent, anti-Semitic "Protocols of Zion" (which told of a Jewish plot to run the world) as truth and staged pogroms. (Kazakhstan, formerly a part of the Soviet Union, gained its independence in 1991.)
"By evoking that example, Cohen's timing couldn't be better," Schalit said. "There remains a populist strand of anti-Semitism in the U.S. that is the parallel of pre-Bolshevik Russian anti-Semitism. And it's emanating from the quarters of the religious right."
Josh Neuman, editor of edgy, youthful Jewish humor magazine Heeb, thinks American Jews will get Cohen's "Borat" and not be offended.
"I think Jews understand the power of satirical narratives, because we understand the power of narratives in general," he said via e-mail. "[There's] a desire to poeticize the absurdity of stereotypes rather than arguing against them. I think the former is much more effective than the latter."
And, Neuman said, Cohen also has another target.
I think [he] is satirizing how mainstream anti-Semitism is around the world, but also and perhaps more importantly I think he's satirizing a Western bourgeois notion of people from distant lands, their customs and beliefs. I think that he pulls it off with immense subtlety and creativity."
"Borat" plays in theaters starting Nov. 3.