Borat Sagdiyev is a television reporter from the small town of Kuzcek (it’s near Almaty) in Kazakhstan who has been sent to the United States of America to report on our culture to the people back home. Of course, that is no easy task; The Kazakhstan that Borat shows us is a dreary backwater of a nation, a place where incest, prostitution, poverty, sexism, homophobia and anti-semitism are so rampant that the shining beacon of Democratic enlightenment that is the “US and A” (as Borat calls us) proves to be a baffling maze of luxury and folksy good spirit that requires careful navigation by the curious journalist. Unfortunately for his subjects (and fortunately for us), Borat is a perfectly delicate balance between traveling CBS newsman Charles Kuralt and Adolph Hitler; A careful navigator of the divide between our two cultures? Um, not so much. In his new documentary film Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, the intrepid Kazakh reporter unwittingly uncovers the limitations of courtesy and tolerance in his search for the true heart and soul of America.
Of course, Borat is just a character, the creation of soon-to-be mega-star Sacha Baron Cohen (who plays the titular reporter) and Borat is not a documentary film, but the story of a fictional encounter between a man and a foreign way of life. Well, that’s half-right. Borat is, in fact, a documentary, but a documentary with a unique conceit; Place a fictional character so finely drawn and yet so foreign and ambiguous in real-world situations and you’ll see what truths emerge when your culture’s darkest prejudices, usually hidden under the cover of social courtesy, are opened up for discussion. As a cipher for American xenophobia and global condescension, you will not find a more powerful mirror for our collective soul than Borat, a character who peels back the deceptive layers of America’s dirty little secret; We’re not nearly as good a people as we think we are. As such, Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, directed by Larry Charles, plays as both comedy and deep tragedy which makes it one of the most politically charged and important comic documentaries to hit screens in a long, long time.
I know there will be purists out there questioning my labeling of the film as a documentary, but I think the distinction is true enough. Borat follows the conceits of documentary filmmaking to the letter; Subjects who are in an essentially non-fiction situation, responding to a camera and interviewer who capture what is essentially a non-fiction encounter. One could argue, then, that television shows like Punk’d or Candid Camera are also documentaries; Real people in staged situations they believe are real. The difference here, though, is the presence of the camera, which is known to the subjects, and the fact that there is no reveal; For all intents and purposes, the film’s subjects are interacting with a real foreign journalist in an environment of their own making (a crucial difference), the only difference being that the journalist is, in fact, not what he says he is. How this is different than any other undercover journalism, I’m not so sure.
Sexy Time: Borat Hits The Beach At Cannes
Of course, like many documentaries, there are staged moments that drive the story forward, directorial choices and narration that are not created in the moment but before or after other material has been shot and then used to bring coherence to the film as a whole. How is driving an ice-cream truck with a bear in it and actually scaring passing motorists (which Borat does) any different or more staged than the crime scene re-enactments in Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line or Nathaniel Kahn rollerblading over the grounds over the Salk Institute his father built while playing Neil Young’s Long May You Run in My Architect? These scenes, staged for the films, add meaning and cinematic coherence to the movies in which they appear, but I’m not sure they are any more valid a documentary technique than what goes on in Borat. The only distinction I can come up with is that we as the audience know that Borat himself is a fiction (as is his staged backstory), but I’m not sure that diminishes the powerful reality of what Charles’ film documents. If anything, the fictional protagonist running amok in the real world may be the only way in which the film’s revelations about American life are possible.
As a documentary and comic conceit, the character of Borat is an absolutely perfect tool for exposing the cracks in the façade of American self-congratulation. A foreigner from a country that 99% of America knows very little if anything about, the character gives Cohen the freedom to offer whatever opinions he likes without allowing the people he meets to take too much exception; No one wants to offend the foreign guest, but they just can’t help condescending to him. This is why Borat’s stunts are so effective in the South, where the façade of genteel hospitality is still the order of the day, and so dangerous in places like New York and Los Angeles, where people are used to living with foreign cultures while still preserving their personal space. If any film exposes the transparency of the cultural divide between the red states and the blue states, this is it. Whereas people in New York and L.A. run from Borat or threaten him when he tries to engage them (because the urban landscape is one where such interactions are generally forbidden in public), most of Borat’s Southern interactions take place within the confines of relatively private space: Private homes, small businesses, and a very hospitable Winnebago. As such, and somehow despite the presence of cameras, there is a certain level of comfort among these people that does not exist in the film’s urban locales. This works two ways, allowing the Southern subjects to speak more freely (and allowing the subjects to show themselves to a relatively safe Borat) and appear more generous (if naive) while the urban interactions have higher public stakes and harbor an air of danger that poor, misunderstood Borat might actually get hurt. In Borat, no one is safe from their own pre-conceptions about the rules of public life and everyone ends up guilty.
Mr. Manners: Dinner With Borat
But what are those rules? Funnily enough, Borat exposes intolerance wherever he goes, either by being intolerable and violating American rules of courtesy and enlightenment (as in his hilarious interview with a group of New York City feminists or his dinner party antics in Alabama) or by presenting himself as a cultural bridge between American prejudice and his own (albeit fictional) brand of ignorance. This is the fulcrum on which the movie pivots; When we agree with Borat’s enlightened subjects and take exception to his sexist, anti-semitic remarks, we shake our head and laugh at the character (and Cohen) for presenting us with such an awful stereotype of a foreigner, but when we see our fellow citizens sharing Borat’s prejudices, well, the joke is still funny, but in a completely different way. It is in these interactions that Borat becomes an essential look at American political and cultural attitudes, whether it be the head of a rodeo envying the “Kazakh tradition” of lynching homosexuals (“That’s what we’re trying to get done around here,” he chuckles) or the young, drunk and privileged frat boys from the University of South Carolina bemoaning the “entitlement” of people of color and women while chugging beer and watching pornography in their Winnebago. In these moments, Borat provides the perfect sympathetic mirror for American idiocy to rear its ugly head. Take for example this infamous clip, from Cohen’s Da Ali G Show, where Borat appears at a country and western bar in Arizona and leads the crowd in an anti-semitic sing-along. While this scene doesn’t appear in the film, it perfectly illustrates the power of the foreign cipher as license to showcase the worst in America’s casual attitude toward the ignorant stereotype. The people in the bar and the audience are stuck in an culturally impossible position; Do we boo the foreigner for singing a shitty, hateful song, or do we courteously sing-along in the name of good, clean fun? After all, Borat’s not hurting anyone, right? We don’t want to be rude, do we?
What separates Borat from the Jackass school of filmmaking is not the audacity and outrageousness of his public stunts which, in my opinion, transcend Steve-O physicality and arrive at something much more meaningful, but the political intent behind the humor. Because of the deeply unsettling political content of the film, Borat walks a razor-thin line between blistering social commentary and dangerously casual prejudice, but Cohen and the film achieve an absolute singularity of intent and vision. The question is, is the movie so smart and so strong that some of us end up laughing in sympathy and not in outrage? Certainly, some will see this film and be baffled as to what to make of it; Twentieth Century Fox’s (in my opinion) mistaken decision to pull back the number of screens for the film’s initial release because of mixed results at test screenings seems to indicate that even those in on the joke aren’t sure what to do with what might become a political hot-potato. That said, most people who see Borat will laugh until they are sick, regardless of their politics, simply because the film and the character are free to make fun of everyone, including Borat himself (those crazy foreigners!). What makes Borat such a loaded comedy is that no matter when you laugh, and you will, it will always be for the wrong reasons. The hope is that maybe, just maybe, the joke sinks in and we all realize that it’s on us because frankly, if we weren’t laughing, we’d probably want to cry.