dir: Jason Woliner
It’s getting increasingly hard to know what to call these films with Sacha Baron Cohen playing strange characters trying to trick people into showing how awful they are. They’re not docos, mockumentary is not a real word, they’re not entirely fictional, except for the people who don’t know they’re on camera for the purposes of making a Borat movie, and they are, at least for me, excruciating to watch because of my ever-decreasing threshold for cringe.
I literally had to stop watching this flick 30 or 40 times. Admittedly, that doesn’t mean much when you’re streaming something: it’s not like I had to get up dozens of times to press ‘Stop’ on some outmoded VHS player without a remote control, or eject the tape and put it back in its plastic box. I just had to click the Pause icon. But I did it so many times, over so many days. Can I even really say that I’ve watched the movie, or would it be more accurate to say I watched a disconnected series of images to do with this movie, until I heard or saw something so disturbing I had to stop dozens of times over the course of a week? So my knowledge of what actually happens in this flick is spotty, to say the least.
The gist of it isn’t really beyond me, because it’s not that complicated. It sounds complicated, if you took the trouble to list the stuff that they pretend is the plot: Borat was imprisoned in Kazakhstan for bringing shame to the fatherland, and is released in order to give a monkey to Trump, or Michael Pence or any other random person, in order to make his country great again. The original flick came out in 2006, so it’s comforting to see, when Borat returns to his home, which if I recall was originally filmed somewhere in Romania, nothing has changed or improved in nearly two decades. If it’s not the same, awful place, then excellent work by the location scouts finding somewhere just as dismal from a few centuries ago to briefly film in. I wonder if they gave cigarettes or chocolate bars to the local children in payment?
Much to Borat’s horror, he discovers that he has a daughter, called Tutar (Maria Bakalova), who somehow lives in more squalor than the people around her. Through comedy and misadventure, she ends up in the States with Borat as he tries to implement his plan of giving something of value to the highest ranking monsters of the current administration.
Now, along with all the horrific racist and anti-Semitic stuff Borat is renowned for, and the ability he has to find terrible people who happily say horrible things on (hidden or obvious) camera, the ultimate story with Tutar is the gradual realisation, on both their parts, that she is not sub-human, and that she is as entitled to live and breath and walk around and drive and do all sorts of things just like everybody else. There is a manual of misinformation and medical mendacity that both read from like it’s gospel, and in truth it’s only marginally more repressive and misogynist than the actual gospels.
A case in point: darling daughter begs for opportunity to eat a cake for the first time in her life. Father frets that such a treatie would, I dunno, make her less fertile or downtrodden. He eventually relents, not knowing much if anything about daughters, but still somehow feeling the innate need to make them happy. Because of the weird, anatomically inaccurate Kazakh-daughter manual, she knows nothing about human sexuality or biology, Kazakh or otherwise.
Of course, this happens just after requesting a cake, which is a fraught, political statement in the States, with the personalised message written on top of “The Jews will Not Replace Us”, pointing as it does with Cohen’s usual headache inducing subtlety to both the cases where bakers argue Freedom of Speech to not supply cakes to gay people, along with the chants of white supremacists at Charlottesville a bunch of years ago.
What’s even more galling about the scene is that the cake Tutar fixates on, which is really more of a cupcake, has a plastic baby on top of it. Now, I can’t really take issue with the way in which the script uses that fucking plastic baby to take Tutar on a journey of self-discovery, as well as illuminating the hypocrisy of “pregnancy crisis centres” which are fraudulent anti-choices places masquerading as women’s health clinics and the anti-choice movement in general: honestly, these are fish in a barrel. It is right and proper that they be derided and taken to task for their horrible medieval approach to women’s health, and I guess on some level I admire the, what’s the word, oh yeah, “chutzpah” of taking something so daft to such an extreme degree.
On the other hand, though, it’s such bullshit. Any cupcake bakery etc in the States, even one run by the dumbest, most virulently anti-gay, anti-mask, anti everything MAGA hat wearing troglodytes available isn’t going to be selling cupcakes with plastic babies on top of them. First of all, imagine staking the continuation of your livelihood on whether Americans would be smart enough not to choke to death on plastic. It’s basic health and safety, which is why it has to be bullshit. Secondly, since the whole flick is dependent on Tutar telling people that she has a baby inside her put there by her father, only so that the reactions of awful people can be captured on camera, well, you know it wasn’t something they just happened to come across in the wild. It was set up from the start, which I guess is fine, because of course it leads to a woman emancipating herself by shitting out a (plastic) baby. Take that, Emmaline Pankhurst and all the other Suffragettes who fought for the vote in England! What did you accomplish for women without shitting out a plastic baby, huh?
Nothing, that’s what.
Freedom, true freedom, comes from the realisation that you were always free, even when others denied it. Help comes in many baffled forms for Tutar. When she is left in the capable but confused hands of a professional babysitter, who, at least at time of filming, doesn’t seem like she’s in on the joke, Tutar has a supportive and kind woman tell her the what’s what of contemporary womanhood, and personhood, too, seeing as it’s wrapped up in a moment where Tutar thinks she is obligated to undergo plastic surgery in order to be more like her hero Melania (ugh, I don’t want to have to ever type some of these names ever again) and to be more desirable to the likes of Mike Pence and Rudy Giuliani (ugh, again, never again).
If you’ll allow it, the justification for the awful stuff Sacha Baron Cohen says and does on camera is that it allows others to show how much more awful they are, however the moments where it (affectingly) results in something sweet and touching almost make it all worthwhile. When an emancipated Tutar yells angrily at her father that she learned from Facebook that the Holocaust is a hoax (ugh, I hating having to even type these awful things even when they’re solely for the purpose of mansplaining what goes on in a movie), it shocks Borat to the core, because he’s all about hating the Jews, apparently. It shocks him so much to have the underpinnings of his life view dissolved that he elects to die. To do so, he dons a costume from a 1939 Nazi true believer’s closet of an “evil Jew” so awful you’d think it was something Sam Newman on The Footy Show wore for a gag or because it was a Thursday night.
He sneaks into a synagogue, where he believe the members of the congregation will sniff out his non-Semitic characteristics and literally tear him to shreds. But once he’s in there, he meets two old nice ladies / yentas of such sweetness that it brings tears to my eyes just remembering it. One of the ladies, baffled as everyone is generally baffled by Sacha’s / Borat’s antics, speaks so gently and kindly to him that I couldn’t help but remember that in the last few years (not that it wasn’t happening before these recent times of high idiocy), angry guys have walked into synagogues like the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, or the Poway synagogue shooting in 2019, and killed a bunch of people whose only crime is being Jewish and going to shul. The most disturbing thing I was thinking in these scenes was “do these ladies think that if they talk gently enough to this lunatic that he won’t take out a gun and start shooting?” One of those ladies, Judith Dim Evans, has since died, which makes me even sadder about one of her last acts on this earth being talking down this lunatic. May her memory be a blessing.
Because that’s the stupid world these people live in today. It’s not my world, it’s not a world I want to live in, and even having to think about it makes me profoundly uncomfortable. But Cohen thrives on that discomfort. He makes a living out of it, and enough people respond to it (or don’t get it but consume his stuff anyway), and mostly he’s trying to make us laugh by also letting us see how awful some people are. We know that when he wears a stupid outfit and sings a song about the Wuhan flu, and how Dr Fauci should be killed, it’s not because anyone who watches one of his movies agrees with it, it’s to show footage of people cheering and applauding like the ravening hordes do at one of Trump’s Klan rallies. Their reaction is meant to make us feel chastised or better about ourselves, but, you know, I don’t need to see it. I’ve seen enough footage from actual rallies or CPAC presentations to know how these grifters feed red meat to their deplorable audiences.
Sometimes, though, it backfires. Two conspiracy theorist nuts who Borat shacks up with, who have clearly been drinking the QAnon Kool-Aid by the gallon, end up seeming like harmless, confused but otherwise decent old jerks. I mean, I have no doubt there’s probably a string of restraining orders, unpaid child support and worse attached to their names, but they seemed like a lovely old couple who didn’t really mean anyone any harm.
I’m not implying they were a couple – I mean, it’s seemed a bit strange that these two guys who might have lost everyone else in the world were living together and stoking their dread of minorities / women / lizard people, but when one of them drops to his knees and begs Tutar to give Borat another chance, because the Kazakhstan government are going to execute him with cows, the chap saying it looked like he believed it. Sincerity, even misplaced, even completely misguided, has to count for something, surely.
Tutar’s transformation into one of the uber Fox News blonde SS hosts is really something to behold, and there’s a bunch of footage within conservative grifter circles which indicate it’s easy as anything for blonde people to gain access to anywhere, including, it seems, Rudy Giuliani’s pants. Admittedly, of all the awful stuff this man has done and said lately, the footage in this film is something else entirely. I can’t speak as to why a man of his awfulness and decrepitude thought a woman 55 years younger than him would want to have sex with him, and it’s truly horrifying to watch, but the payoff, of a deranged mostly naked Borat bursting into the room and screaming that he’ll fuck Rudy in his daughter’s place, because after all she’s only 15.
I…this movie… it’s a lot to handle. The ending is just – I cannot believe how much of this stupid, awful year is captured in this film, but its point is not that Kazakhstan used Borat to infect the world with the coronavirus: It’s that dads should support their daughters and not trade them as livestock. Maria Bakalova and Cohen work wonderfully together, but I have to say some of the scenes where they’re yelling at each other, she in Bulgarian, he in massacred Yiddish, are a bit hard on the ears, no matter what the translation. They worked so well together, and she is the heart and mind of the film, whereas he remains its inflated testicles.
The story of a father gradually and painfully learning to love his daughter, and the daughter learning to be fully human is enough to almost get me past the discomfort of watching Borat do naked exercises waving a strap on dildo in people’s faces.
Almost. What an insanely wild ride. I don’t think any other film made this year or made about 2020 will ever capture as much of this year as Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Asking whether it’s good or bad is almost beyond the point. It was what it was. And what a dumb year it’s been.
8 times wear a fucking mask you yokels out of 10
“Return immediately to die in excruciating pain. You will be tied to two cows who will face Uzbeks with turnips inserted in their assholes. Uzbeks will be enticed away with money and cows will follow to eat turnips, ripping you apart.” – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm