dir: Larry Charles
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The full title of the movie is Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Perhaps the title should more clearly represent what the film is: an affront to human dignity. So, had I the power to change the title, it would be something more like: Borat: People are Pigs.

I know why Sacha Baron Cohen puts himself in these horrific situations: because it has lead to fame and fortune, whether as Borat or Ali G or in the other roles he is starting to get in Hollywood. But that doesn’t make watching him put himself into increasingly dangerous situations to provoke laughs down the track any easier to handle.

If this is a comedy, and mind you, I said ‘if’, it is generally the comedy of discomfort, where watching people do or say awful things makes us cringe and hopefully laugh uncontrollably. But in many ways this movie is little different from the MTV Jackass series and movies where Johnnie Knoxville and his crew of mental defectives cause themselves and each other extreme amounts of pain for our amusement. The difference is that in the Jackass films, the participants are volunteering to drink horse semen or jump head first into sewerage.

The majority of people evident in Borat’s escapades are not in on the joke. They don’t realise that Borat Sagdyiev, television journalist from Kazakhstan is a character. When he goes to kiss strangers on a subway who then threaten to kill him, they’re not in on the joke. When he tells a group of feminists that women have been scientifically proven to have smaller brains, and that they should smile, pussycats, they’re not in on the joke. When he gets a rodeo crowd to loudly cheer as he urges ‘Premier’ Bush to drink the blood of every Iraqi man, woman and child, they’re not in on the joke.

When he tries to get a woman he thinks is a gypsy to cry so he can collect her tears to act as a ward against Jewish curses, she clearly is not in on the joke. When he hands a plastic bag full of his own crap to his host at a dinner party, two things are evident: it’s real crap, and she is not in on the joke.

It is alleged that the police were called on Cohen and his crew 91 times as they made this film, and you can believe it considering some of the situations he gets into. In most cases, bewildered members of the public try to help him out in a friendly and polite fashion. In others, Cohen’s behaviour frees up other people to make incredibly boorish and viciously ignorant remarks about Jewish people, about women and minorities. So whether he provokes them or fools them into saying what they really think, the ‘merit’ of his work is meant to be that it is funny AND it lets us know what some people are really like.

Although many of the scenes are cribbed wholesale from the television series (or at least recreated anew for the movie), the difference here is that Borat has an actual plot, which is as completely ridiculous as you would expect.

Borat and his producer Azamat (Ken Davitian), and an unseen cameraman are sent by the government of the mighty nation of Kazakhstan to the United States to learn what makes America and Americans tick. Whilst on their journey Borat becomes fixated on Pamela Anderson after watching a few episodes of Baywatch, and decides that they will travel to California so that he can meet and hopefully marry her.

Almost everyone could find something to be offended by in this movie. The point is to be shocked and offended, the hope is that people will also be laughing when he scolds Orkin the town rapist and asks him to keep it down and restrict his activities to humans at least during his absence. Or that his jar of gypsy tears will protect him from contracting AIDS during his travels.

Labelling this style of comedy as a tonic for political correctness misses the point by a substantial degree. Cohen isn’t breaking down ethnic barriers or holding up a mirror to multicultural society: he’s getting laughs out of embarrassing the heck out of people struggling to be polite to his monster of a caricature. The real joke, much of the time is that he’s pointing out how ignorant some people must be to believe that someone like Borat could still genuinely exist in this day and age. Borat’s almost supernatural anti-Semitism, racism, sexism and every other ism becomes theirs when they fail to correct him, or, at worst, they show themselves to be even worse.

The central enigma is that, in the vast majority of scenes excluding the subway material at the beginning, which is clearly hidden camera stuff, in the vast majority of other cases, members of the public say everything they say knowing they’re being recorded on camera. The camera somehow, instead of being an impediment, actually facilitates the deception.

Some of the more notorious scenes involve Borat travelling with some very drunken fratboys with some highly enlightened views on women and, the singing of the Kazakh national anthem at a rodeo, the dinner party where Borat confuses someone being ‘retired’ with being ‘retarded’, and a scene which no human should have to ever watch involving Borat and his producer wrestling naked.

The sheer ugliness of this scene cannot be described in a human language. No earthly tongue can effectively capture the magnitude of how hideous this scene is. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s not funny.

One of the more amusing scenes, which is somewhat less of an insult to the people it is perpetrated upon, occurs at a Pentecostal Church where, after losing his drive to get to Pamela, Borat’s hope is rekindled by the love of Jesus, and he sets out again to make her his bride in the traditional Kazakh way.

The truth be told, I have major ethical difficulties with this film. As funny as I find some parts of it, and as amazing as I find it that Cohen can put himself so willingly in some of these life-threatening situations again and again, many of these people have no choice in the matter. They’re not given a choice as to whether they’re going to be part of this until afterwards, when, allegedly, the producers are waving a model release form and a fifty buck note under their noses in order to give their permission to be shown onscreen and to waive their right to sue. By then the damage is done. They’ve had to watch one naked man chase another obese naked man around a conference room threatening him with a rubber fist. They’ve had someone hand them a bag of human faeces in their own home when all they wanted to do was show their Southern hospitality to a foreign guest. This is not exactly fair, and is hard to justify for the end result.

In some ways, finding out how the movie was made and its aftermath are more interesting than the movie. Several people, including the producer of a morning television program, lost their jobs due to Cohen’s antics, others are threatening legal action because of ‘fraud’, though how they can argue that they’ve been defrauded in some way is beyond me.

It’s obvious that the tourism bureau in Kazakhstan isn’t going to be that happy with the movie, but it hardly makes them look bad. The scenes of peasant poverty at the beginning and throughout the film were filmed in Romania. No-one actually speaks Kazakh or Russian at all throughout the film, none of the language or cultural elements mentioned or parodied have anything to do with Kazakhstan. When Borat and his producer are arguing, Cohen is speaking Hebrew and Yiddish whilst the producer is screaming in Armenian.

Everything from the onscreen languages used to the music are cribbed from all over the place, including Borat’s ubiquitous phrase which sounds like “Jagshemash”, which is actually Polish. Most of the music is from all over the place, including a Macedonian Romani (gypsy) brass band called Kocani Okestar, and at other times I’m sure I could hear the theme from the old computer game Tetris playing in the background. It’s an incredible stew of elements that has nothing to do with any specific location, so whilst people are welcome and urged to be offended, none of it can be seen to be specifically targeting Kazakhs or anyone else personally.

It is frighteningly vulgar, horrifically transgressive, more cringeworthy than watching your parents have sex in a public pool, and gleefully pseudo anti-Semitic and anti-gypsy.

Very (sporadically) funny, but disturbing on a whole number of levels. Just as it should be.

7 out of 10

“My country send me to United States to make movie-film. Please, come and see my film. If it not success, I will be execute.” – Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.