Borat review


Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (US/UK 2006)
Dir: Larry Charles
With Sacha Baron-Cohen

What to make of Borat, the prizewinning, law-suit generating, half-fiction half-vindictive journey-into-the-heart-of-darkness-of-America film that broke box office records around the world last winter?

The concept behind Borat is outwardly very simple: a naïve filmmaker from Kazakhstan arrives in New York to shoot a film about American culture and customs. On the way, he interviews people from diverse walks of life, embarrasses himself in countless ways and falls in love with Pamela Anderson.

If this sounds like some kind of racist Benny Hill skit, it’s worth looking again.

Borat’s character is a manifestation of Western fears of the Eastern foreigner. Culled from a variety of contradictory sources, the Kazak Borat lives in a Roma village in Romania, speaks Hebrew under his breath and spells his name BDRDT in the Cyrillic alphabet. He is everything a xenophobe fears: socially inept, culturally gauche, much too forward (he tries to kiss hello to strangers on the street), unintelligent, not properly toilet-trained and too oblivious to notice. More importantly, he is deeply anti-Semitic, misogynist and homophobic.

In one scene, Borat walks into a gun store and asks what, “What is best gun for kill a Jew?” The man behind the counter goes straight to the display and shows him a variety of handguns.

The problem Borat encounters is not his bigotry but that he doesn’t know how he is supposed to express it. What this reveals is an intricate set of social rules that have been developed over the past fifty years to manoeuvre these antiquated attitudes through a social reality affected by the gains of the civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights movements.

This is what makes the film so funny. Borat’s bumbling antics delve deep into the invisible rules of our society. His ultimate purpose is to lead people out of their public personas and get them to admit to what they really believe, beyond the veneer of public political correctness. After the film was released, three frat kids who were filmed bragging about the merits of “Russian bitches” filed lawsuits against the film for defamation, illustrating this point precisely.

Not all of what he unearths is political. For example, the fear of being caught naked in public is a common enough fear that often resurfaces in dreams. There have been innumerable films with characters getting locked naked outside their hotel rooms and having to hide themselves from the glances of strangers.  Probably none of them will seem funny again after the sight of Sacha Barron-Cohen and Ken Davitian running naked through the halls of a New York hotel, winding up wrestling on the stage of a corporate dinner meeting before their inevitable arrest.

The satire is at its weakest when Cohen films Borat’s supposed village in Kazakhstan. Whereas in the US Cohen is able to let his subjects walk into his traps he sets up, here the stereotypes come straight from the horse’s mouth. All the village women are prostitutes, the children nurse AK-47s in the kindergarten, there is an annual “hunt the Jew” festival. Here there is no ironic distance between what is said and what is meant; it seems pretty clear that Cohen is just poking fun at a culture he doesn’t like much. This is also the case with Cohen’s ensuing in-character stand-off with the Kazakh government, in which Borat recycles the same stereotypes about Middle-Easterners.

Poetic justice

The stakes are raised by the possibility of being found out and the fear of potential violence. Borat shows up at a rodeo to sing the American national anthem. Before a crowd of 20,000 people, he announces Kazakhstan’s allegiance to George W. Bush’s “War of Terror”. How will the crowd react? At first there is loud, if uneasy, applause. He continues, “May George Bush drink the blood of every single man, woman, and child of Iraq!” The crowd begins to get restless. When Borat launches into his rendition of the Kazak national anthem to the tune of America’s national anthem the goodwill is over; apparently Cohen had to be escorted out by security.

The camera acts as a mirror to show the bigots for what they are. We don’t only laugh because the situation amuses us, but because of the satisfaction of watching the bigots get what they deserve. Even if, in the immediate situation, the bigot might feel they get the upper hand, the camera provides an ironic assurance that they will lose in the end.

Many commentators have worried that the irony of the film could be lost on college crowds. Certainly, the many accusations of anti-Semitism attest to that possibility. But the role of satire is not to make easy parody to make us feel good. Borat treads on all of our toes and, by disturbing us, reveals something about the absurdity of our time.


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