But what about the people of Kazakhstan? [Chicago Reader blog post, 12/23/06]

Posted By on 12.23.06 at 06:46 PM


I’d like to ask some of the fans of Borat to explain something to me. I keep reading that this movie is a sly (or not so sly) critique of racism and intolerance based on ignorance, but Sacha Baron Cohen’s apparent semi-ignorant intolerance of the Kazakhs is almost always factored out of the discussion. It’s pretty easy to paint them as a pack of pathetic anti-Semites if you know nothing about them, but isn’t that the kind of glibness Borat is supposedly attacking?

Michael Moore has often been accused of a similar kind of one-upmanship, and with some justification, but why does the even less analytical Cohen get a free ride when he appeals to the same base impulses of the audience? The fact that, as recently revealed, he has the villagers of Kazakhstan speaking Hebrew suggests that maybe he’s enjoying a joke on his more “knowing” spectators as well as his more obvious on-screen targets. But I honestly don’t know what sort of thought — if any — lies behind his use of Kazakhstan or the choice of Hebrew. John Tierney in the New York Times (subscription required) has aptly pointed out that he always could have made Borat a citizen of an invented country instead.

Would any of the people who put the film on their ten-best lists care to comment?


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Comments (17)

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Borat (and Sacha Baron Cohen) are shrewdly playing both sides to some extent. But I think, in every case, it’s Borat’s bigotry and ignorace themselves that are the butt of the joke, not the OBJECTS of Borat’s bigotry and ignorance. To me, Borat seems like the “outcast kid teased at school” — only, in the film, because he’s a foreigner, the would-be bullies humor him (at least until he pushes things too far and they realize he’s been bullying THEM).

Posted by Mandingo on 12/24/2006 at 9:11 AM

In their reviews of “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” Anthony Lane of The New Yorker and Armond White of the New York Press make it clear they are not amused. Mostly because they think the movie is about something I woudn’t think was funny, either, if I thought that’s what the movie was about. To Lane, Sacha Baron Cohen is a guy who “adopts fictional personae and then marches briskly into the real world with a mission to embarrass its inhabitants.” That may be “Punk’d” (or “Candid Camera”) but that’s the least of what’s going on in “Borat,” which presents these improvisations in a fictional narrative context that give them meaning (and, consequently, humor). To White, “Borat” is “anti-American propaganda,” that “primarily consists of genital humor, scatological humor and jokes about deformity and mental retardation” — while any praise of the film is “a bit seditious” and amounts to “evil criticism.” OK, that movie doesn’t sound funny to me, either. But that movie is nine shots of Armond White with just a splash of Borat Sagdiyev. Lane is baffled by “Borat.” White goes off on a comically crude and incoherent rant against Madonna, Andy Kaufman, Neil LaBute, Madonna (again), 9/11, George W. Bush, Michael Moore, Emir Kusturica, the “angry Left’s vicious temerity” and the “self-loathing” of “Borat’s ass-kissing film critics.” Yes, in White’s six-paragraph review he spews more bilious imagery — “pits,” “sewer gas,” “flatulent,” “odious,” “evil,” “stench,” “Ethnic-Cleansing” — than the feature film he’s accusing of low blows. (And for some people, inexplicably, everything will always be about Madonna.) [Mild joke-spoilers ahead.] Both Lane and White insist that the “real people” Borat encounters are uniformly the “victims” of his humor. And yet, we probably ought to remember that all of them would have had to sign releases, or contracts, to appear in the film. (One guy who runs away from Borat on the streets of Manhattan has his face digitally blotted out in the TV spots, probably because his release did not cover the use of his likeness in advertising.) I don’t know to what extent each of these scenes was staged and which involved actors. But (he said “but”!) “Borat” pretty much requires that you ask yourself who is the butt of the joke (if there is one — a joke or a butt) in each case. Is the driving instructor a “victim” (or a target) in the same sense as the drunken frat boys? Are the kids who run from the bear treated the same as the etiquette coach? Is Alan Keyes in on the joke to the same extent as Pamela Anderson — and is it the same joke? If you don’t ask yourself these kinds of questions while watching “Borat,” a movie that provokes you again and again to examine your reaction to what you’re seeing and ask why you think it’s funny (or not funny), then you may as well be watching “Punk’d” or Martin Short’s Jiminy Glick — because you won’t understand the difference. White doesn’t. He writes: In Borat’s interview scenes, the “Candid Camera” gimmick recalls old confrontational hoodwinks, like the one Martin Short perfected by playing showbiz sycophant Jiminy Glick. But Short’s Glick was brilliantly ballsy; he went after celebrities—the real sacrosanct power in contemporary culture. Borat picks on a trio of middle-aged feminists trying to hold on to dignity. The joke is on their age and politeness. “Do you know the word ‘demeaning’?” one of them asks. Borat answers “No”—the same negation he directs toward an etiquette club’s dinner party, a gang of ghetto rap boys, Pamela Anderson fans, any group that might be perceived as voting conservative. First, White is correct when he asserts that Jiminy Glick is not really much like Borat when you think about it, if you think about it, even though he makes that assertion after he’s made the comparison. Glick is one big, self-congratulatory “Access Hollywood” inside-showbiz gag, where all the guest interviewees are fully aware that they are sitting opposite Martin Short. Is there an easier target — or a more pervasive one — than the inanity of celeb chatter? If White honestly thinks celebrities are “the real sacrosanct power in contemporary culture,” or that Jiminy Glick does more to undermine it than to simply reinforce it, then I hate to say it but he needs to watch more TV and check out more check-stand tabloid papers and magazines to get a little perspective on the place of celebs in contemporary culture. Second, White assumes that the interview with “a trio of middle-aged feminists” is a joke “on their age and politeness.” Really? He doesn’t notice that the women (who occasionally look like they’re about to laugh) maintain their dignity and politely humor Borat, while he does his best to shock them by saying the most cretinous things imaginable? Imagine if these women had taken the bait and thrown a screaming fit. I submit that would not have made for a funny scene, just an ugly one. Borat’s oversized, inappropriate jibes are in the anarchic spirit of Groucho Marx insulting Margaret Dumont (although his lines aren’t nearly as clever, because he’s not playing a clever character). Both White and Lane get Borat’s comedic precedents all wrong. (Are Chico and Harpo evil, too?) In his second paragraph, White writes: “As Borat Sagdiyev, Cohen pretends to document the habits of fly-over America; his red state debauch ultimately pandering to Liberals’ worst instincts.” He lumps together the “trio of middle-aged feminists” with “an etiquette club’s dinner party, a gang of ghetto rap boys, Pamela Anderson fans, any group that might be perceived as voting conservative.” What makes White assume all these “groups” he’s describing might be perceived as voting conservative? Middle-aged feminists and Pamela Anderson fans? Southern aristocrats in a mansion on or near Secession Blvd. and “ghetto rap boys”? Does he honestly think the film has the same attitude toward them all? (White thinks the movie too afraid to poke fun at “N.Y./L.A. media-centers” and exploits cultural confusion to divisive ends; I think Borat’s a social-liberal populist disguised behind a giant moustache, who shrewdly identifies with blacks and gays because he doesn’t want to risk causing truly divisive offense. ) There is none so provincial as a patronizing New Yorker who’s spent too long in his solipsistic media-center bubble. White claims “Talladega Nights” was “derisive about the Midwest’s auto-racing subculture” (but at least he thought it was funny, though he doesn’t mention it co-starring Sacha Baron Cohen); Lane writes, “This defense of Borat as an unwitting scourge of the reactionary—unearthing Midwestern beliefs no less parochial than those he left behind in Kazakhstan—is sound as far as it goes.” No acknowledgment that, after a brief Kazakhstan introduction, the whole second section of the movie takes place in New York City, and the last act in Los Angeles and Orange County. Borat’s route goes from New York through Washington, D.C., then into the South, and through Texas and the Southwest on the way to the Pacific coast. But to these guys, anything west of Jersey is “The Midwest.” Borat’s not that insulting. Lane is bewildered: What does Baron Cohen’s cousin, an expert in autism, make of all the retard jokes? And what game is Baron Cohen playing, exactly, when he shows mock footage of an annual Kazakh ceremony known as “the Running of the Jew,” in which children kick a giant egg to bits, to stop “the Jew chick” from being hatched? Well, I don’t know the answer to the first question, but I’d rather know what Lane makes of them. In one scene a “humor coach” explains exactly why jokes about “retardation” are not considered funny in America, because mental illness causes a lot of pain to a lot of people. Borat is clueless: “Even if it’s a very funny retardation?” Is that joke really at the expense of the mentally ill — or the humor coach? Later, Borat misunderstands a Southern gentleman who says he’s “retired.” To Lane, these are just “retard jokes.” As for the “Running of the Jew”: What part of this requires explanation? The visuals alone — the preposterous magnitude of the exaggerations — are what’s so hilarious. The notion that the culture perpetuates these caricatures of such mythic proportions, and indoctrinates children into participating in them (even though none of them, especially Borat, have ever actually encountered a real Jew) is what makes it satire. That this isn’t immediately apparent to an adult writing for a “sophisticated” publication like The New Yorker is something I find troubling. And I don’t think the fault is with the movie. Then again, perhaps Lane and White should not be expected to understand what’s going on in “Borat.” After all, White proclaims: “Borat is not funny—except, perhaps, to 13-year-olds or people who imagine Cohen’s targets (that is, other Americans) as mortal enemies.” White is writing to get attention, but is it really all that far from this kind of divisive shock-rhetoric to the mentality behind “You’re either with us or with the terrorists” — or to Ann Coulter, or to the Running of the Jew? Or am I just an American-hating 13-year-old? (Rhetorical question!) And are those the only two options?

Posted by Jim Emerson on 12/24/2006 at 9:14 AM

Why do you have a problem with Sacha Cohen making fun of Kazakhstan but you dont mind when he makes fun of Americans? This is a perfect example of your hatred the United States. I always found it ironic that you say that peopele who like Woody Allen films are self loathing people, but what are you? You have always had a longstanding interest in foreign film. I, too, more often find intellectual and aesthetic nourishment in foreign film than in domestic releases, and I am usually a happier reader of contemporary foreign fiction in translation than I am of the contemporary American variety, but, for me at least, this doesn’t arise out of an ideological conviction that foreign stories are worthier than the stories unfolding in front of us, only that most contemporary American fiction and film are rather too concerned with personal happiness and gratification than with ultimate concerns. Here is some of what Rosenbaum has to say about Sideways: They behave as if the world beyond southern California doesn’t exist, but the movie doesn’t seem to realize it. And: Did the critics find something comforting, even affirmative, about its provincialism? And: I’ve lived in both San Diego and the Santa Barbara area, where most of the story is set, and I recognize the people, the weather, the restaurants, the wine bars, the golf courses, even a few boring and boredom-inspired southern California habits, like doing newspaper crossword puzzles on the freeway. Maybe one reason I don’t like the movie more is that I don’t miss any of this. In contrast, about one of his favorites, an African film called Moolaade, he writes: These characters are far more representative of the world’s population than any of those in Sideways… In other words, provincialism is great, so long as it’s not reflective of places where most Americans live, work, love, dream and die. If the provincialism is exotic to most Americans, then it’s inherently valuable. Excluding the lives and troubles right in front of our faces in favor of safely distant cultures puzzles me. I might add that this same preference permeates the literary world, with its thrill for the exotic. If American stories lack something, it’s due to the failure of American artists to adequately engage with the material at hand. An argument that, here in the seat of privilege, no suffering or conflict worth writing about is taking place, could not be made by those paying close attention.

Posted by Josh on 12/24/2006 at 9:28 AM

My 20 best list for 2006, currently reachable on the Reader’s website, includes The War Tapes, Find Me Guilty, Half Nelson, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Ask the Dust, Hollywoodland, Fast Food Nation, and Bobby–all American films about America and Americans. (This doesn’t include The Power of Nightmares, which is also largely about America and Americans, and Iraq in Fragments, which is also American). Disliking Sideways and liking Moolaade have absolutely nothing to do with any preferences for one country over another.

Posted by Jonathan on 12/24/2006 at 11:46 AM

P.S. I never said I didn’t mind it when Cohen made fun of Americans. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t, and a lot depends on whether or not the ridicule seems grounded on something real.

Posted by Jonathan on 12/24/2006 at 11:52 AM

Hi Jonathan – Why don’t you have an e-mail address so all of your fans can e-mail you with questions?

Posted by Amanda on 12/25/2006 at 4:09 PM

Hi. You just emailed me with a question, so I’m not sure what the problem is. If you’d rather do this elsewhere, try me at [email protected]

Posted by Jonathan on 12/25/2006 at 7:24 PM

For another anti-Borat view, Nick DiGilio of WGN, a man who revels in contrariness, has stated that the film is overrated and that Tom Green and the “Jackass” movies are more daring then anything Cohen does in “Borat.” Of course, this is the man who actually thought that “Freddy Gets Fingered” is a misunderstood masterpiece and the man who loves slasher films–the bloodier, the better. (His review is not online, so I can’t link.) I don’t totally buy it, but I will say that I was not as impressed with “Borat” as some people were–I don’t know if it’s my age or the fact that it didn’t come as the surprise that it seemed to come to the people who saw it at Toronto, thanks to all of the hype.

Posted by Mark Jeffries on 12/27/2006 at 11:56 AM

I have some problems with Borat, but its treatment of Kazakhstan isn’t really one of them. That’s because the opening section (in Kaz.) is so cartoonish, that I don’t think an audience could reasonably take it for the real thing. (Perhaps I have too much faith in the audience.) That cartoonish opening establishes Borat as a cartoon-like character, and when he brings it to the U.S. to see how people will react, it becomes clear that, more or less, we’re seeing real people (as opposed to cartoon characters). I thought that was part of Cohen’s genius. The comparison with Michael Moore is a very useful one that has really helped me appreciate Borat.

Posted by Steve S. on 12/27/2006 at 4:11 PM

I’m going to keep this short. If Borat truely was being intolerant towards Kazakhstan, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it half as much as I did. But the film’s not making fun of Kazakhstan so much as it’s making fun of how Americans view the middle east. That is, as an anti-semitic, incestuous, near lawless region.

Posted by Adam G on 12/28/2006 at 12:30 PM

Actually one of the things I appreciate about Borat is the vehement debate it’s inspired. Anything that gets people thinking, debating, discussing – even if some revile it – is okay by me. I had problems with it, and agree with the aforementioned point that Cohen could have easily created a fictional country instead of picking on Kazakhstan, using an almagamation of traits of other countries, and so on. But there was still too much I admired about how effective the film was at creating both this character and his warped POV, and frankly, how much I laughed through much of it, to analyze it to the point of ruination. Still, I enjoy reading the debate, the comments on it…

Posted by Craig Phillips on 12/29/2006 at 2:00 PM

Hi, Jonathan, only found this now, thanks to one andy horbal’s blog link. Nice, lively site. I enjoyed Borat–all right, there’s room in me for the infantile and crude and edgy–but didn’t think it was the best of anything, much lest of the year. And I think I agree, it would hurt a lot less feelings (where such hurt feelings do matter) if Cohen had used a fictional country instead.

Posted by Noel Vera on 12/31/2006 at 1:16 AM

The use of Kazakhstan is more subversive than appears, actually. Cohen seems to have chosen KZ not only for the obvious jabs at Middle East Ignorance but for the political history, rife with its own duplitcitous contradictions, of the Kazak government. Check out the Wikipedia entry on the country and you can see what obviously rankles Cohen: But, democracy has not improved much since 1991. An article from World War 3 web site says “In July 2000, Kazakhstan’s parliament passed a law granting President Nursultan Nazarbayev lifetime powers and privileges, including access to future presidents, immunity from criminal prosecution, and influence over domestic and foreign policy. Critics say he has become a de facto “president for life.” (Central Asia-Caucasus Institute briefing, July 5, 2000, [2]). Over the course of his ten years in power, Nazarbayev has repeatedly censored the press through arbitrary use of “slander” laws (RFE Newsline, April 12, 1996), blocked access to opposition web sites (9 November 1999), banned the Wahhabi religious sect (5 September 1998), drawn criticism from Amnesty International for excessive executions following specious trials (March 21, 1996) and harsh prison conditions (13 August 1996), and refused demands that the governors of Kazakhstan’s 14 oblasts be elected, rather than appointed by the president (April 7, 2000).” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kazakhstan A guy who wrote his senior thesis at Oxford on the role of Jews in the American Civil Rights Movement must know all the ramifications of his film, right?

Posted by Ryland on 12/31/2006 at 3:40 AM

I should also say that BORAT is not among my favorite movies of the year: I prefer JACKASS: NUMBER TWO as some kind of odd surrealist masterpiece of free-association and nonstop hilarity.

Posted by Ryland on 12/31/2006 at 3:58 PM

Jim E’s reference to the Marx brothers is dead on. Borat is to ambiguity what Duck Soup was to anarchy, or to put it another way, comic ambiguity is to the 2000s what comic anarchy was to the 1950s. There is simply no way to authoritatively “know” who is the villian or the butt of any joke in any of the scenes in this movie from start to finish, which is the point. For my part, I identified more with Borat’s interview subjects than Borat himself, which may be why I see the movie as a comedy of embarassment, but not a satire. The tension in the movie is between every character’s desire to get along, be respected, and treat each other right, and their helpless ignorance as to how to accomplish that. The fact that the title character is a wildly unrealistic caricature with a suspicious tendency to pick fights only ups the ante. In a related note, I have no idea if any of you actually believe what you say you do either.

Posted by John S on 01/02/2007 at 3:22 PM

After I saw Borat I thought that someone could write a sequel to Bazin’s ‘Cinema of Cruelty’ and cover many recent films including this. If there was a ‘Cinema of Cruelty’ sequel I think it would recognize that many recent films don’t value anything, or mock everything. I think this trend is scary. Films should generate discussion yeah but there are much better films with many more ideas that aren’t being seen and aren’t being discussed. Plus, Groucho and Borat: I could endlessly watch Marx Bros. movies while halfway through Borat I felt like I’d seen it four times already.

Posted by Brian on 01/02/2007 at 9:15 PM

Check out his out-of-character interview on NPR (from January 4): http://www.npr.org/templates/rundowns/rundown.php?prgId=13 I like the way Sasha Baron Cohen explains this by saying the Shoah was allowed to happen, not because germans were all rabid antisemites, but just because they were indifferent to what could happen to them.

Posted by HarryTuttle on 01/04/2007 at 5:45 PM
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