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Review: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Dir: Larry Charles, 2006)

Reviewed by Andrew Johnson

22 November 2006

The movie version of Sacha Baron Cohen’s comic creation Borat is currently leading box-office returns on both sides of the Atlantic, becoming the surprise smash hit of the autumn. A combination of rave reviews, a huge PR campaign and Baron Cohen’s pre-existing teen fanbase came together to help the film gross $26.4 million on its opening weekend in the United States, despite only showing on a limited number of screens. Not least, the film has been given a huge publicity boost by the sovereign nation of Kazakhstan, whose government has taken a dim view of the country’s portrayal in the film. Like Baron Cohen’s previous character, Ali G, Borat has become a pop culture phenomenon, eagerly quoted by kids and earnestly discussed in the serious press. So where did this craze come from? What does it mean? And is it any good?

It all started in 1998 with Channel 4’s late and largely forgotten Eleven O’Clock Show. Amongst the hit-and-miss studio frolics, one thing that stood out was a series of filmed reports from an incongruously-dressed man with a strange vocal styling. This was Ali G, a spot-on spoof of the “wigga” phenomenon, white suburban youths who emulated the style (and backward attitudes) of American gangsta rap. With his Day-Glo threads and ludicrous gangsta patois, Ali was immediately recognisable as an only slightly exaggerated impersonation of Radio 1 DJ Tim Westwood, godfather of the wigga scene, whose lack of street credentials (son of the Bishop of Peterborough) have not impeded his career in hip-hop media. Indeed, Ali’s references to his “West Staines Massiv” gang are a direct steal from the Westwood show, where the DJ regularly gives shouts out to the Esher Posse or the Surbiton Brovaz.

The Ali G routine was brilliantly simple. Ali, Channel 4’s Official Voice of Yoof, would go and interview some establishment talking head. He would ask them indescribably stupid questions and generally behave like an ignorant yahoo. The establishment figures would usually answer him straight-faced, unwilling to be rude to the man from “youth TV” – even when he responded to some imagined slight with “Is it cos I is black?”, nobody dared point out that he was as black as a blancmange. The results were often extremely funny, and, even though it was a no-win situation for the interviewees – look like an idiot or look like a humourless spoilsport – many of them deserved it. Ali’s trip to Belfast in particular, which saw him taking on a bemused Sammy Wilson, was quite a hoot.

Ali G quickly became ubiquitous. Teachers across the land shuddered as legions of kids yelled Ali G catchphrases. The character even got the accolade of appearing in the video for Madonna’s Music, the Agadoo of Generation X. And it was noteworthy that in Baron Cohen’s dedicated vehicle, Da Ali G Show, Ali was no longer a pathetic wannabe. Apart from the odd spark of self-deprecating humour, we were treated to Ali as icon of cool, surrounded by semi-nude women, cheered on by a studio audience, and with guests who would play along to show what good sports they were. This made it more difficult to claim a satirical edge – when Ali was a loser, calling women bitches and hos could actually be funny; when he was a hero, it was a bit harder to stomach.

This was followed by the feature film Ali G Indahouse, an atrocity of Dude, Where’s My Car? proportions, one of whose few redeeming features was an astonishing performance from The Office’s Martin Freeman as Ali G’s sidekick, giving Baron Cohen a masterclass in comic characterisation that he would have done well to study. (Baron Cohen also has one quite funny joke, when Cabinet minister Ali G – don’t ask – comes up with a plan to sort out Northern Ireland. The only way to stop the Hindus killing the Islams, he opines, is to bring in lots of really fit women.) Freeman notwithstanding, that’s an hour and a half I’ll never get back. So it was with a sinking heart that I braved exposure to Baron Cohen’s latest cinematic epic.

Borat goes large

Borat Sagdiyev, the “Kazakh” TV journalist, was one of the second-string characters premiered on Da Ali G Show. (The other was Bruno the Austrian fashion reporter, who was quite good at exposing the vacuity of the fashion world but of limited application outside it. Dispiritingly, a Bruno movie is said to be in the works.) Borat, acting as a stand-in for the now too well-known Ali G, would interview various people for an alleged Kazakh TV documentary. Generally, he would say something stupid, crude or offensive and goad the interviewee for a reaction. Eagle-eyed viewers will have noticed that all three of Baron Cohen’s characters are essentially the same – a bozo with daft clothes and a daft accent, asking people stupid questions – which suggests that Baron Cohen is either a one-trick pony or has a marked tendency to laziness. But Borat caught on and graduated to his own TV show, before getting this big-screen outing.

So what of Borat the movie? The good news is that it’s about a thousand times better than Ali G Indahouse; the bad news is that it’s still pants. Like Ali G, Borat is essentially a one-joke character, and, while the joke might work in ten-minute snippets on TV, in the context of a feature film it wears exceeding thin very quickly. Baron Cohen probably realises this, as the character of Borat has had something of a makeover. The TV version was a lovable doofus, a kind of Mr Bean with added toilet jokes. The big-screen Borat verges on the monstrous – not only crude, but racist, homophobic, fiercely misogynistic, and, above all, anti-Semitic to the point of obsession. While the anti-Semitism has drawn plenty of comment, it shouldn’t be taken at face value: Baron Cohen is of course Jewish himself, and Borat’s prejudice is so over the top (Jews with magic shape-changing powers?) that it can’t be taken at all seriously. Nonetheless this aspect of the character is both significant and revealing.

The opening is probably the most interesting part of the film, as it represents a bit of a departure from the established Borat formula, purporting to show him at home in Kazakhstan, enjoying his village’s “Running of the Jew” festival. (This is also where Baron Cohen tips a wink to his homies; when Borat speaks “Kazakh”, Jewish viewers will instantly recognise the language as fairly fluent Hebrew.) Now, I am no expert on Kazakhstan, but I do know it is a big flat plain with lots of oil and gas, inhabited by a traditionally nomadic, Turkic-speaking people who look Oriental, are nominally Muslim but actually extremely secular and have no particular history of anti-Semitism, and which is ruled by the geriatric Stalinist thug Nursultan Nazarbayev. None of this appears in the Borat movie, where the idealised “Kazakhstan” looks very East European, for reasons that I will go into a little later. Actually this sequence was filmed in Romania, in a dirt-poor village inhabited by Roma gypsies. The Roma, who suffer dreadful poverty and discrimination in most of Eastern Europe, are here turned into a grotesque carnival sideshow for the benefit of Western moviegoers – readers might like to seek out Emir Kusturica’s Time Of The Gypsies for a genuine appreciation of Roma culture.

After this we move to the United States. Beginning in New York, Borat and his “producer” travel through the American heartland to Hollywood, where Borat plans to woo top-heavy B-movie starlet Pamela Anderson – or rather dump her in a burlap sack and take her back to Kazakhstan. Along the way, a succession of Americans are given the Borat treatment. See Borat josh with Confederate-flag-waving southerners! See him discuss the attractiveness of “Russian bitches” with drunken frat boys! Laugh as he chats about his bowel movements in polite company! Thrill as he talks his new American friends into singing “Throw the Jew down the Well”! Actually, quite a few of these gags did raise a chuckle, and one or two were genuinely jaw-dropping. Whether you can last the entire film depends totally on your patience for variations on the basic Borat routine.

So far so inconsequential. But many reviewers have made great claims for Borat’s social significance. Is the film, as its defenders have claimed, an exposé of bigotry? If that was the intention – which I am not convinced of – then it is far from succeeding. Leave aside the staged appearance of many scenes: the point is that we are not dealing with surreptitious filming of conversations, as in the BBC’s skewering of fascist leader Nick Griffin. On the contrary, Baron Cohen, clipboard in hand, is prompting his targets. Many in fact don’t rise to the bait, but pretend not to notice Borat’s more offensive comments. And those who join in? It’s impossible to tell whether they actually believe what they are saying or whether, with typical American politeness, they are just humouring their eccentric foreign guest. Even if we take the film at face value, at best it only proves that redneck America contains a lot of reactionary people. Baron Cohen may as well prove that bears defecate in wooded areas.

Ashkenazi chauvinism?

There is another aspect that, as far as I am aware, only one or two Jewish reviewers have yet picked up on, and which Baron Cohen himself may not be fully conscious of. That is, how both Kazakhs and Americans – but especially Kazakhs, who aren’t buying any cinema tickets – are portrayed in total conformity with traditional Ashkenazi Jewish ideas of gentile culture. In 19th-century Yiddish folklore, the goy is invariably drunken, dirty, uncouth, animalistic and is assumed to be violently anti-Semitic unless there is evidence to the contrary. As the folk song has it:

“Shikker iz er,
Trinken miz er,
Vayl er iz a goy.”

“He is a drunk,
He has to drink,
Because he is a goy.”

Kazakhstan is an arbitrary target, but the East European location of the film’s opening is no accident. Borat is not intended to be representative of Turkic nomads in Central Asia, but of Slav peasants in Eastern Europe – in essence, Kazakhstan is an ersatz Ukraine. The Jewish attitude to the Ukrainian or Belarusian peasant was one of contempt – the Jews historically acted as middlemen for the Polish aristocracy in viciously oppressing the peasants – combined with fear, as in the folk memory of the 1648 Chmielnicki rebellion, when the peasants rose against the aristocracy and, while they were at it, massacred the aristocracy’s Jewish agents. Jewish historiography has tended to interpret the rebellion as being purely motivated by anti-Semitism, and the Israeli media to this day ahistorically identifies the Palestinians with Chmielnicki’s peasant army, as well as with the Nazis. And why Kazakhstan? Presumably because we, the audience, know nothing about it; and because, unlike with Poles and Ukrainians, there is no significant Kazakh emigration that might take offence. (Interestingly, Borat was originally portrayed as Albanian: the change in his ethnicity might not be unconnected to the fact that there are lots of violent Albanian gangsters in Western Europe who also might have taken offence.)

This Jewish background perhaps provides a clue to the most notable aspect of Borat’s sexism, his habitual assumption that every woman he meets is a prostitute. Under Jewish religious law, all gentile women (even converts to Judaism) are indeed assumed to be prostitutes. I am not by the way claiming that Baron Cohen subscribes to the xenophobia and misogyny that was prevalent in Jewish society 200 years ago – but, as he comes from an orthodox Jewish background, it is fair to assume that he is aware of these old prejudices and they inform his comedy, in the same way that Chris Rock draws on the less attractive aspects of Black American culture. The difference is that Rock is outspoken about his own opinions, while Baron Cohen’s idiosyncratic approach to the press – he refuses to be interviewed out of character – makes it impossible to know what his real opinions are.

Ridicule or celebration?

This leads us to the final problem with Borat – is he being held up to ridicule or celebrated? We’ve been here before – Johnny Speight, it will be remembered, invented Alf Garnett to ridicule bigotry, only for a whole layer of bigots to adopt Garnett as a hero. Borat, in this context, appears as a kind of Alf Garnett for the Bo! Selecta generation. The most noticeable thing about watching Borat in the cinema is that different sections of the audience are laughing at different things. Adult, particularly those of a liberal disposition, laugh at the American rednecks, and tend to overlook the fact that they are laughing at a stereotyped comedy foreigner. Teenagers on the other hand laugh at the gross-out gags and at the taboo-breaking dialogue. This raises the prospect of millions of teenage Borat fans who think it’s cool to call women prostitutes.

I don’t want to come across here as a politically correct killjoy, but the question is whether there is any purpose to breaking taboos. It is perfectly possible to get comedy value from anti-Semitism (Mel Brooks has been doing this for decades), prostitution (Night Shift) or even incest (Spanking The Monkey). But there is something depressing about a film that is supposedly “bold” in its approach to social taboos simply using these things to raise a cheap laugh, doing so relentlessly and without the warmth or joy that the Farrelly brothers brought to Kingpin, which should be a key reference point for anyone wanting to make this kind of film. Nor is there the obvious intelligence that lay behind Johnny Speight’s writing. You do on occasion get the feeling that Baron Cohen is trying to say something, but the overall impression is that there is less to Borat than meets the eye. In a way, the occasional flashes of potential make Borat less easy to forgive than Ali G Indahouse, which never pretended to be anything more than puerile tomfoolery.

But maybe it’s too much to expect Borat to provide some kind of social critique – that’s a claim that has been made for it, not one that Baron Cohen himself has made. And one’s response to the humour really depends on whether one finds cruelty terribly funny. Had a ruthless editor cut Borat down to about 45 minutes, it might have made a perfectly decent bit of evening entertainment for Channel 4. There is something there – it’s just not easy to see beneath the hype and indulgence.

But Borat’s success means Baron Cohen will be with us a while yet, and get even bigger projects. The question is, will he stretch himself and try something different? One suspects that he has the talent and intelligence to throw the clipboard away and produce something really substantial. Or will his success just encourage him to do more of the same? Has he more than one good idea? Only time will tell.


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