November 13, 2006

Cultural learnings from Borat

By: James N. Markels

There are so many targets for ridicule in “Borat: Cultural Learnings of American for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” but what is most interesting about the movie is not who the targets are, but whether the targets even know that they have been savaged in the first place, and how the objects of ridicule choose to react.

In case you’ve been so obsessed with election results to bother with the latest in pop culture, here’s a quick overview of “Borat”: English comedian Sacha Baron Cohen portrays Borat Sagdiyev, a TV reporter from Kazakhstan who describes with pride his nation’s virulent anti-Semitism, homophobia, and sexism, and indeed embraces those values as his own. He sets out to “the US and A” with his broken English to learn about our country, in the process acting much like a bull in a china shop — both literally and figuratively.

The movie goes into great detail about the culture of Kazakhstan — or rather, the Kazakhstan that Cohen creates. These fictional Kazakhis have TV and yet no toilets, automobiles, or modern social graces of any kind. They are essentially a third world nation with MTV.

Naturally, the real Kazakhstan, which sits atop one of the largest oil beds on the planet, took some exception to this. At first they protested Cohen’s portrayal and demanded that the movie be stopped, but subsequently got the joke. Cohen picked Kazakhstan mostly because most viewers would know practically nothing about the country, making it easier for the jokes to have traction. And the depictions were so over the top as to make it highly unlikely that anyone would take Cohen’s jokes seriously. As a result, Kazakhstan reversed course and invited Cohen, as Borat, to visit and learn about the country. It became good publicity for an otherwise unknown nation.

Individual Americans are often the butt of the joke in the movie as well, much as Jay Leno exposes the ignorance of the average citizen in his man-on-the-street interviews. Cohen cleverly gets a rodeo organizer to say that he’d like to see homosexuals hanged, and three college frat boys give the faux Kazakhstani a run for the money in being rampantly misogynist and racist. These are uncomfortable moments, and my crowded theatre was noticably quiet during these episodes. However, we are used to seeing our fellow citizens making asses of themselves on camera. We know that it does not reflect upon us as a country. And in fact, the movie seems to bring out much that is good about America. As boorish as some of the interviewees are, all of them are unfailingly friendly to Borat. The moments where the worst things are said are typically in an effort to find common ground with this foreign visitor.

However, don’t try to kiss or touch New Yorkers. That point is made abundantly clear early on.

And then there’s the anti-Semitism. Borat’s anti-Semitism transcends “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and charges into a la-la land where Jews are supernatural monsters. The movie pulls no punches, as viewers are quickly introduced to “The Running of the Jew,” which is just like Spain’s running of the bulls except the bulls are replaced by “Jews” with giant horned demonlike heads who chase after fleeing Kazakhis with claws and weapons, the female one laying a giant “Jew egg” that the village children gleefully destroy. It’s a ridiculous spectacle, and yet only an appetizer of things to come.

The pinnacle of the movie’s commentary on Jews comes when Borat stops at a bed and breakfast to sleep for the night, only to realize after he has booked a room that the owners, an adorable old couple, are Jewish. Instantly, Borat and his producer are convinced that the couple will try to kill them, refusing to eat any food for fear of poison. Their paranoia is so great that, upon seeing bugs in their room, the pair thinks the Jewish couple had changed their shape in order to kill them, and, after throwing money at the skittering insects, run pell-mell from the house in terror.

Jews are horned shape-shifting devils that lay eggs and murder non-Jews with abandon? It makes the viewer rub their eyes in disbelief. And yet, it’s so over-the-top that it makes sense. The movie isn’t reveling in anti-Semitism — it’s making fun of it. Borat’s anti-Semitism is Islamist anti-Semitism taken to the next level, where Cohen takes real-life accusations, such as the charge that Jews were behind 9/11 or that Jews use the blood of Muslim and Christian babies in their rituals, and raises them to parody. There’s a reason, after all, that the Anti-Defamation League hasn’t said a single word about “Borat.” They, after all, get the joke.

But not everyone gets it. Russia is refusing to screen the movie, for fear that it might offend delicate Russian sensibilities. And yet such censorship is as sure to fail as Islamist efforts to censor cartoons depicting Mohammed. Of course the frat boys in the movie are upset over how they were depicted. And so is the town of Glod in Romania, which served as the fictional Kazakhstanian town Borat hailed from. But they are taking out their displeasure the tried-and-true American way: through lawsuits.

In the end, Kazakhstanis wind up looking more enlightened than American frat boys. Maybe that was the joke that Cohen was aiming to tell all along.

James N. Markels is an attorney and a regular columnist for Brainwash.