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February 07, 2007

"I support your war of terror!" - Borat's mixed reception here, there and everywhere: Borat - Larry Charles

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

I have seen the Borat film now. And guess what? It's not all that funny.

The concept is brilliant - making fools of the Yanks - but the execution is imperfect. This may be thanks largely to the purely conceptual nature of the whole project: the script, such as it was, only outlined scenes which Cohen then had to bring to life in the real world. Not surprisingly, the result looks somewhat haphazard, and not very slick.

Interviewed about awards nominations for his "script", even Cohen admitted surprise that his "experiment" was being credited with the full weight of a screenplay. Basically, Borat is a disappointing effort, not least considering the comedic credentials of the team which put it together: Larry Charles (Seinfeld), Peter Baynham (Fist of Fun, Alan Partridge, Brass Eye), Dan Mazer (Ali G), Todd Phillips (Road Trip, Old School), Jay Roach (all three episodes of Austin Powers), Anthony Hines (Ali G, Anyone for Pennis), and Cohen himself.

The essential veracity of the whole mockumentary is also thrown into doubt, thanks to the Pamela Anderson kidnapping-scene. Funny though it is to see the world's favourite sex doll "acting" again, running about and shrieking in horror (indeed, much like the good old days of Baywatch), there are two solid reasons to assume it was staged. First, the money: did the backers of Borat have the wherewithal to withstand a massive damages claim from an irate Anderson? I doubt it. Second, the lawsuit from Kid Rock: Pammy's (ex-) husband seems to think the "kidnapping" [see what I did?] affected his marriage; his former wife has conspicuously raised no such objections to the film.

Some elements are chuckle-worthy, but only really in a could-have-seen-that-coming kind of way. This makes it less funny, per se; but it doesn't detract from the points being made about the Americans and their blinkered view of the world.

The now infamous scene of Borat inciting the Virginian crowd to howl for Iraqi blood is pretty worrying; but I suppose you can reassure yourself that the rest of the States are less demented than Dubbya's homeland, and that several of the audience quite clearly smell a rat. After all, it's awareness (or lack of it) is a key feature of this film: there are several cut-aways where ones suspects the interviewees twigged and put a stop to the interview.

What's more startling is the "characters" who are quite harmless (in the technical sense), but simply can't laugh at what is clearly a joke, or even realise when they're the victim of one. The feminist whom Borat calls "pussycat"; the humour coach with his whiteboard and his deeply unfunny jokes; the car-salesman who responds, unblinking, to enquiries about which van would sustain less damage when running over a gypsy; the gun-seller who doesn't flinch when asked,

Which weapon should I buy to kill a Jew?
The lack of reaction often begs disturbing questions about what is considered fundamentally acceptable in a 21st century society.

The patronising do-gooders are the worst. Possibly the most vile element in the film is the dinner-party host who says that with a little training Borat

could be Americanized in no time.
I think I prefer the outright bigots: at least you know where you are with them! When the feminist is told that it's a problem to educate women because they have smaller brains than men and that a government scientist has proven it, her response is not to call Borat a caveman but to ask, in incredulous and condescending tones,
Your government scientist?
It's all just swapping one set of unacceptable gut-reactions for another.

I have no sympathy for Borat's victims. They signed contracts, for one thing, and in this era of reality entertainment the presence of a camera crew ought to have been something of a clue: so the Virginian gent who says they're pushing for legislation to hang gays doesn't really have a leg to stand on. What's more, Borat has been on US screens for some years now. Perhaps a little more cultural awareness - if only of domestic TV - wouldn't go amiss.

Signing the contracts hasn't stopped several participants from trying their luck in the lawcourts. Kid Rock is hardly the only person to leap on the lawsuit bandwagon. The idiot frat boys whom Borat meets on their road trip are suing because their reputations have been wrecked (by whom?!) and their employment prospects damaged. The driving instructor -

I don't care what I signed!
- has made some similar spurious claim. And so has one mug whose faux pas never even made the final cut. At the recent BAFTA ceremony Cohen thanked all those Americans who haven't sued him yet, perhaps slightly smug with the awareness that these suits are unlikely to do him much harm.

To reiterate: the film is no more insulting about Kazakhstan than any episode of Blackadder is about England. In fact, Borat's mother-country features so little in the broad scheme of things that it could be anywhere - a point made against the film in early criticism (on account of the patronising assumption that all Central Asian states are the same). The reality is that Borat has put Kazakhstan on the map of American consciousness in a way normally only achieved by scenes of American military embarrassment.

My impeccably-worded defence of Cohen's efforts - on this site - fell on deaf ears in Kazakhstan, alas. There were various tantrums, and though the government stopped short of banning it they asked the Kazakh cinemas not to show it:

it is quite insulting to the people of Kazakhstan and it may create some accusations from the public against the government for letting such things come to our country.
Since President Nazarbayev amazingly scooped 91% of the vote at the last elections, it can be assumed that the cinemas listen to this kind of ‘request’.

Meanwhile, the Kazakh government spent $40 creating Nomad, an epic movie about a Kazakh hero, which opens and closes [on the same night?] with words from the President. They maintain the production had nothing to do with countering the Borat effect, though the timing of the project was curious - just as the timing of Nazarbayev's autumn trip to the UK obviously had nothing to do with the release date of Borat.

In the last article I suggested that the Kazakh's draw the sting of the movie by showing it at some embarrassingly formal venue, thus associating it with the government and ruining its potential credibility with students and anyone with a sense of humour. Margaret Thatcher performed a similar trick very effectively with Yes, Minister, announcing that the exceptionally well-informed spoof was her favourite show. It didn't make the programme any less funny or relevant, but it did prevent her from losing face by it.

But it turns out the Kazakh's beef with Borat is rather longer-running, an early battle being the attempt by the Kazakh foreign ministry to sue Cohen, following Borat's speech as host of the November 2005 Europe MTV Awards. They subsequently banned an official Borat website mostly, it seems, because Cohen used it to openly mock their pathetic lawsuit:

I'd like to state that I have no connection with Mr Cohen [says Borat on the site] and fully support my government decision to sue this Jew.
He also posted the foreign ministry's astonishing statement:
We do not rule out that Mr Cohen is serving someone's political order designed to present Kazakhstan and its people in a derogatory way. We reserve the right to any legal action to prevent new pranks of this kind….
Borat, it seems, is not merely an offensive fool, but a subversive and a dissident. Interesting.

Even before the feature-length movie was released the Kazakh government shelled out for ads on CNN and in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, citing chapter and verse about civil liberties, cultural achievements and economic growth in Kazakhstan. Sense of humour? What?

But it's not just the government who are suffering from a major humour failure over this. The proud Kazakhs are up in arms nationwide (though perhaps because they've only heard about the film, having not been allowed to see it). A falconer in Almaty threatened to kill Borat on the spot; the leader of the opposition said

if I see him, I'll punch him in the face,
and warned that in a properly hard-line Soviet-bloc country
there would have been a government decree to destroy Borat.
An anchorwoman on Kazakh TV demonstrated that Cohen's medieval and vulgar creation is totally unreflective of the average Kazakh citizen:
He might look like a Turk, but definitely not a Kazakh.
In October 2006 one savvy Kazakh official thought up perhaps the best way of killing the joke: he invited Cohen to the Central Asian republic [N.B. Any Kazakh readers with connections to government, I expect full credit]. Cohen did not take the bait. Perhaps it was because the offer came from the very same foreign ministry which threatened to sue him. Or perhaps he felt the terms in which the Deputy Minister's offer was couched were not sufficiently reassuring:
He can discover lots of things. Women drive, wine is made of grapes and Jews are free to go to synagogues.
Well, that's a relief (except the bit about the women, of course). The Deputy Minister remarked upon the importance of having a sense of humour and respecting freedom of creativity, and noted that suing an artist would only boost his popularity; but the rest of the Kazakh government seem not to have listened.

There were some conspicuous cases of people "getting it", however… including in Kazakhstan and the US. Students in Almaty have started to see the funny side. One said that she was initially offended by Borat’s "chain of importance" - dogs and horses before women - but:

then I realized that he was making fun of ignorant people, no matter where they come from.… The real target of Borat's movie is a couch potato who believes that Kazakhs drink horse urine.
Quite. Someone send this girl to the States, for make benefit cultural awareness in US and A.

The Kazakh Club of Art Patrons was way ahead of the game in recognising Borat at a serious level. Bemoaning the lack of humour among government officials, the novelist Sapabek Asip-Uly (chair of The Land and Destiny of Kazakhs writers' guild) recommended last November that Borat be given their annual cultural award on the grounds that he:

managed to spark an immense interest on the whole world in Kazakhstan [perhaps an overstatement] - something our authorities could not do during the years of independence [true].
Even the disgruntled President Nazarbayev had to admit that Borat had made Kazakhstan better known to the West.

Pissing into the Kazakh wind, the President's daughter, Dariga Nazarbayev, has defended the film. Perhaps reflecting a younger, more relaxed generation, she astutely remarked that the ludicrous Kazakh response to the affair hurt the Kazakh national reputation far more than Cohen's - rather mild - jokes. She also told the Kazakh newspaper Karavan (which surprisingly didn't feature in the film) that the Borat website:

damaged our image much less than its closure, which was covered by all global news agencies.
Ms Nazarbayev is not merely related to Kazakh politicians; she is one. The former head of Khabar, the state-run news agency, she is also considered a front-runner to replace her father when he retires. Though that seems pretty shady, politically, she has her head screwed on right when it comes to such trifles as comedies:
we should not be afraid of humour and we shouldn't try to control everything.
Carina Chocano - a staff writer at the LA Times - correctly assessed that the people who should be embarrassed by the movie are not the Kazakhs but the Americans:
nice people he effortlessly prods into revealing their not-so-nice sides.
She also expresses the widely held astonishment (echoed in the UK) that Borat can still find victims who don't recognise him immediately. And, in case anyone thinks I'm too mean about the Yanks, she points out that the film isn't even that much more about America than Kazakhstan; it's about any blinkered people,
petrified, inward-looking nationalism of all stripes.
Still, with the exception of those who feature in it, the Americans can't have misunderstood it that badly: the movie took $127 million in North America, despite (or on account of) all the controversy. And now it's being nominated for awards left, right and centre. Following a Golden Globe (best actor in a comedy), and a best adapted screenplay nomination from the Writers Guild of America, there is even talk now of an Oscar. The last is a bit of a stretch - even Johnny Depp couldn't swing it with Pirates of the Caribbean - but it's good to see comedy being taken seriously, and in the right way.

A last thought on the never-ending ironies surrounding this film. The version I watched was a Sri Lankan copy, taking "copy" in its most literal sense. In Sri Lanka there is a glorious tradition of putting glaring spelling errors on the boxes, or using damning criticism for the blurb: perhaps the most tasteless example of which is my copy of Schindler's List, replete with the trailers and blurb for The Wedding Singer.

So I was a bit put out to find that the cover for this film - for which I never had high hopes - was flawless. ["Why did I not have Housemaid's Knee? It seemed like some sort of slight."] As I watched my brother unwrap his £1 Christmas present (and then persuaded him to watch it immediately), something did not feel right. The contents, however, did not disappoint. A shining example of all that's good about globalisation, here was a film about mocking the Americans (over Iraq) by a British Jewish comedian, pretending to be a Kazakh journalist, the subtitles of whose language were in Spanish, with the extra English subtitles (added by a Korean, I'd guess) overlaid, but four minutes out of synch. And then sold by a Sri Lankan to an Irish-South African.

The miracle of tackiness that was my fraternal offering struck me particularly when I went into Virgin at Piccadilly, a few days after Christmas. I would like to congratulate whichever wags were responsible for the packaging of the newly-released Borat soundtrack (I recommend the Kazakh national anthem, featuring their global dominance in matters of potassium). The shabby cut-out picture of the eponymous hero, the bad print job, the credits in cyrillic: a marvellous job. But somehow it's just not a patch on my genuinely fake copy of the movie. Just as in the film, there's something matchless about authentic, everyday stupidity: something that scripted humour will always struggle to match. As story-telling types never tire of saying, you couldn't make it up.

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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