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October 19, 2006

Borat (a non-review): how not to watch a film

Posted by A S H Smyth

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit of Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Directed by Larry Charles
certificate 15, 2006

By protesting about Sacha Baron Cohen's new film - Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit of Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan - the Kazakh government has made itself look more ridiculous than the film ever would, argues A S H Smyth.

I'm not a big fan of Sacha Baron Cohen. With the exception of the infamous Beckham interview (he can thank his stars, as it were, for making him look good), I don't find him or his alter egos very funny. And I haven't seen his forthcoming movie, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit of Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. But I can be sure of one thing: it's not nearly as big a deal as the Kazakhs are making it out to be.

I don't even intend to see it, because the best part about the film has already come to light. The Kazakhs felt so put out by the very concept that President Nazarbayev went to Washington to complain about it. Alright, he might have been going anyway, but the matter was discussed. And according to Rod Liddle in the Sunday Times Culture magazine [October 15th 2006], the Kazakhs also had their Ambassador to Britain, Erlan Idrissov, state for the record that "Borat Sagdiyev [it's important to be formal at a time like this] is a pig of a man - stupid, belligerent and charmless."

Well, heavens. Ban the film and blockade any cinema which decides to show it! Burn life-size Borat effigies in the street! Death to him what make mock of glorious our nation! Etc.

Maybe Borat is all of those things. In fact, it's a certainty: witness his stints on Ali G. But his country is crawling with men like that. How do I know? Because every country is crawling with men like that. His, mine, and probably yours (for the benefit of Australian readers).

As Liddle goes on to point out, Borat is not a product of Kazakhstan in particular, but a universal type of moron. He hails from Kazakhstan - in Cohen's imagination only - purely because it's a place we know nothing about, surrounded by other places we know nothing about. The same way David Brent hailed from Slough: a nowhere place, with limitless unrealised potential for comedic abuse.

Anyone who suggests that this is "patronising, pseudo-benevolent racism" is an idiot. It's not. It's just easier to create a new character and to make new-ish jokes (Cohen's humour is none too subtle), when not going over old ground. In his role of universal idiot, Borat could, of course, have been British; but apart form anything else, Little Britain and The Office have already successfully tilled that over-worked field, and it is time it was left fallow for a while.

Liddle disagrees, but I say we should be looking at Borat and trying to see the idiot back home. Borat's nationality is totally irrelevant. Or was. "The joke isn't on the Kazakhs", says Liddle, albeit insincerely. Wrong. The joke wasn't on the Kazakhs. But, thanks to their ludicrous over-reaction, it certainly is now.

I will blame my failure to actually see this film (and to join my infinitives up) on the pretty solid grounds that it has not yet been released. But highlights look set to include… no idea. Judging from the publicity shots, "hamboorgers" will feature large, and also a fixation with the "anoos" of every living mammal (less evident in the publicity stills). But be my guest (not too many takers, please) and go to find out for yourselves.

I'm sure, though, that it will be a very balanced and reasonable docu-film. After all, Borat is volubly loyal to his glorious nation. With seven movie screens nationwide, the Astana Funworld hotel ("unlimited buffet of Turkmenistan prostitutes" and "luxury cages for the wifes"), a sexually-explicit local version of Teletubbies, and the famous national tipple (fermented horse-urine) clearly the Kazakh homeland is not to be sniffed at.

What - all the good liberals will now be asking - did the good Kazakhs ever do to Baron Sacha Cohen? Almost certainly nothing. But any sympathy I might have had for them is being rapidly undermined as they retrospectively prove they deserve Cohen's scorn. The immaturity of the Kazakh leadership is breath-taking, asking Washington to suppress the movie, and spending thousands of dollars on a glossy tourism pitch in the American press. "Mummy, a mean man made an insulting film about me." I actually begin to wonder if they know Borat's not real.

And it is that very leadership, one might guess, that is at the root of the problem here. And if you recall how George Dubbya reacts every time he's confronted by Michael Moore (in Fahrenheit 9/11, for example), you'll see why Nazarbayev might have thought he'd get a sympathetic reaction at the White House.

Perhaps the following, from Borat's interview in the Sunday Times Culture magazine, has something to do with it:

I fourth most famous person in Kazakhstan…. No 2 is our glorious premier and No 1 is animal actor Jonny the Monkey, who dress like Humphrey Bogarts and smokes cigarettes.
He also suggests that the (re-named) "premier" had small boys abducted to order, and gained office not by amassing the requisite votes, but by demonstrating that he could suspend a car battery from his ball-sack (for 8.4 seconds). A man of steel, indeed. I imagine that in Almaty President Nazarbayev always wears the trousers… if only to hide the worry-lines induced by the election process.

Mercifully, no-one seems to have paid too much attention to the fact that Borat is an incestuous, wife-caging, horse-molesting anti-Semite . So far they've all been concentrating on the important aspect: that he's a bit rude about Kazakhstan.

The point of the film is not what it says, but simply that it exists. To me, this kind of mockery is a good thing in principle; to the Kazakhs, a mark of all that is wrong with the West, no doubt. If Kazakhstan were a proper, grown-up nation, its politicians would accept the inevitable, and perhaps even turn it to their advantage. By actively embracing the movie - by having a free screening at government HQ, say - they'd not only demonstrate that they can take a joke, but they'd also emasculate Sacha Baron Cohen. A win-win situation if ever there was one.

Imagine the awful box-office Cohen's previous feature-length offering (Ali G in Da House) would have achieved if every MP in Westminster had said it was "cool" and/or suggested they'd happily take their kids to see it. Banning the film, on the other hand - or even publicising complaints about it - would have sent it straight to number one, with every student in the land surreptitiously downloading it from the web or ripping it from a mate. Instead, the film was more-or-less ignored, and promptly settled into mediocrity where it rightly belonged (beside the Adam Sandler movies).

There aren't many occasions on which I really feel pleased to be British. But this is one of them. Despite our long-standing reputation as a nation of dour shopkeepers, we are the world's premier piss-takers and, much more importantly, we know how to take a joke. The Kazakhs, it seems, are piss-lite, and don't.

A S H Smyth is a freelance journalist, specialising in foreign affairs, conflict & security, and Southern Africa.

To read more by the Social Affairs Unit's authors about Borat, see Borat.

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Last week I heard that the gypsy community of eastern Europe is taking Borat/Cohen (presumably they know?) to court for discriminating remarks. It seems that during his film he claims he can hit a gypsy with a potato from 15 yards... or 25, if he is chained.

This week brings the delightful news that the 'Borat' soundtrack features plenty of Balkan musicians, but not a single Kazakh. How very Borat. Karl Jenkins will be delighted to know that he alone is perpetuating the sound of Kazakh music... Though no-one ever notices, the Kazakh national chorus (or similar) features on his 'Requiem'.

Big it up for the Kazakhs.

Posted by: A S H Smyth at October 30, 2006 11:15 PM
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