Larry Charles, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (2006)
Using the narrative form of a naif travelling in a foreign land, investigating and commenting on its customs, to satirise your own society or another society has been a tradition in English-speaking societies at least since Jonathan Swift published “Gulliver’s Travels” around 1726. The form gets a post-modern workout in Sacha Baron Cohen’s mock documentary “Borat …” in which one of his alter-egos, Borat Sagdiyev, a Kazakhstani TV news reporter made famous on Cohen’s TV show “Da Ali G Show”, takes a small crew with him across the United States to film a government-sponsored documentary explaining the society and culture of American people to the folks back home in Kazakhstan. Initially landing in New York City and content just to stay there, Borat is watching TV one night when he sees Pamela Anderson as CJ in an episode of “Baywatch” and promptly falls in love with her. Learning from a group of feminists that Anderson lives in California, Borat becomes determined to find and marry her. He persuades his producer Azamat (Ken Davitian) to go to California with him on the pretext that this trip is necessary for the documentary. Azamat’s not keen to go by plane so they buy an ancient ice-cream van and drive across the country instead.
The film splices together a road movie and a series of scenarios for the documentary in which Borat investigates various customs, rituals and issues in American society and elicits a range of reactions from mildly embarrassed to openly hostile and aggressive, depending on the topic being satirised. This is usually American attitudes on social and cultural issues such as homosexuality, religion and the status of minority groups. The road movie adds pranks and incidents in which Borat either makes assumptions, behaves in certain ways or reacts to what he sees and hears around him based on his Kazakhstani values and prejudices which are nearly always socially backwards from a Western cultural point of view. All the reactions Borat gets suggest that Americans are nowhere near as tolerant, egalitarian or culturally, socially or politically aware as they might think they are; some people he meets even glory in their ignorance and extreme prejudices. The two interwoven strands of the plot take place within a third narrative which describes Borat’s family and village background and the conditions in which he grew up and still lives in. This information primes viewers for the culture shock Borat and Azamat are certain to get, not to mention the culture shock his interviewees and hosts get from meeting him!
The satire works best and is at its funniest when Borat throws people’s pomposity or stupidity back at them as in the scene where he “converts” to Christianity by speaking in tongues or invites an under-dressed prostitute to a genteel dinner party. It does not work so well where the film-makers take for granted that certain groups of people are prejudiced against Jews, Muslims, gays or other minorities; by baiting such groups, Cohen and company simply have their assumptions confirmed, as in the rodeo scene where Borat sings the Kazakhstani national anthem to the tune of the US national anthem. There are pranks done seemingly for cheap and cruel laughs at their victims, as in the scenes that take place in Borat’s home village. The village scenes are meant to mock viewers’ own prejudices about people living in remote and impoverished post-Communist countries but may have the unintended opposite effect of reinforcing such views. Audiences may have the impression that some gags were deliberately stage-managed, with participants like Pamela Anderson in her autograph-signing session and the actor playing the prostitute Luenell knowing ahead what’s going to happen. Most of Borat’s trek across the US takes place through the so-called Deep South, an area often stereotyped in mainstream US culture and elsewhere as culturally backward, racist, homophobic and hostile to all who are not Protestant Christians. The film’s bias is obvious: people in Los Angeles and southern California should be just as ripe for ridicule as are the Southerners, Washington DC politicians and New Yorkers yet curiously there are no interviews or incidents set up with the Angelenos once Borat arrives at his destination.
Perhaps the film tells us more about its creators’ biases and attitudes than it does about American people’s prejudices: as a university student, Baron Cohen did research on Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement in the US in the 1960’s and wrote a thesis on the murders of three civil rights activists, two of whom were Jewish, in Mississippi state in that period. Perhaps in the guise of Borat he was curious to see if people’s attitudes toward race and religion had changed. However, mocking attitudes does have a flaw as a form of “research”: it tends to over-inflate their importance and gives the impression such views are widespread and deeply entrenched when perhaps only a very small minority of people still hold them. So the picture the film-makers and the audience get of racial and anti-Jewish prejudice may be the complete opposite of what actually exists. There is also the possibility that when Borat expresses extreme views, his victims politely try to ignore him or just go along to humour him, hoping that he’ll drop the topic if they say nothing. Their silence or apparent acquiescence tends to encourage him more and, when filmed in certain ways so viewers can’t see because of editing whether they can defend themselves or not, makes the victims look foolish.
The genuinely funny moments include spoofs of various movies like “The Blair Witch Project” and scenes where Borat’s innocence and prejudices get the better of him as in his first encounter with a tortoise and his purchase of a bear. The scene where Borat and Azamat stop at a bed-and-breakfast place for rest and discover that the couple who run it is Jewish is hilarious because the joke is on the guests themselves with their fears and beliefs about the supposed malevolent powers of Jews. Two scenes where Borat meets some gay activists and a group of black teenage boys are funny for the same reason. Though if Borat had asked the gay men or the teenagers the same questions about women that he posed to the white college boys in their holiday van later in the movie, their answers and opinions might have been just as depressing. Borat’s friendship with Luenell the prostitute is very touching and underlines the film’s message that, beneath surface appearances and differences in social class, everyone is human and deserves to be treated fairly. Baron Cohen’s choice of targets – overwhelmingly white Anglo-American and politically conservative – might suggest that he still views American society as it was in the 1960’s when Jews, blacks and other disadvantaged minorities more or less worked together to combat the prejudices white Anglo-Americans had against them, and were prepared to overlook their political, social and cultural differences. This situation of Jews and other besieged minorities may not exist now.
This is the kind of movie you see once as it relies heavily on surprising and confronting viewers with their own prejudices, and much of the comedy arises from people not knowing what Borat will do in the situations presented. After that, the appeal fades and the genuinely funny comedy moments are few and far between in contrast to the comedy that sticks in your craw because it’s actually exploitive and manipulative and based on outdated assumptions and stereotypes.