It's fun to laugh at Muslims! (2007)
the saying goes, analyzing comedy is like dissecting a
frog. No one laughs and the frog dies. Well, let’s get out
the scalpel and peel this one back anyway. Borat: Cultural
Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of
Kazakhstan, has received rave reviews from film critics
since its release, and last month won a Golden Globe. I
figured I’d catch it before it hops from repertory theatres
to the video stores.
British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has played an unnamed
Moldavan TV reporter for BBC's Comedy Nation, and an
Albanian reporter called Kristo for the Comedy Channel.
These were the building blocks for his character Borat
Sagdiyev, an overenthusiastic broadcast journalist from
Kazakhstan. On the Da Ali G Show, Borat’s shtick was to
corral unsuspecting interview subjects, often fly-over
state Americans, into absurdist exchanges that played up
their homophobia, racism, or just plain ignorance. Thinking
he’s a genuine Khazak reporter, Borat’s victims are
initially eager to educate this exotic specimen. But as his
questions become increasingly obnoxious and offensive, they
begin to squirm.
The film opens with the gangly character in his hometown
village, sucking face with a short blonde woman, his
sister, whom he proudly describes as the "fourth best
prostitute in all of Khazakstan." He tells us the Kazakh
age of consent has been recently raised to the age of
twelve. We witness the "Running of the Jew" – a fictional
annual traditional festival in which the 300 bravest men of
Kazakhstan chase large papier-mâché caricatures of Jews,
while children throw rocks at the figures.
There have been plenty of comic cultural stereotypes in the
past, from Peter Seller’s Inspector Clouseau to SCTV’s
Mackenzie Brothers. But they weren’t so provocatively
over-the-top that you’d find nothing recognizably human in
them. Not Borat. Whether he’s masturbating in front of
window display mannequins in New York, or happily carrying
a bag of his own feces into a stuffy dinner party, he’s as
hideously foreign as Ridley Scott’s Alien.
On CBC radio recently, two hosts conversing about film
comedy mentioned the classic sixties comedy The Party, in
which Sellers played a clumsy East Indian film extra.
Agreeing that a remake wouldn’t be proper, the hosts deemed
Seller’s dark-skinned klutz politically incorrect. If this
accurately reflects the attitude of our oh-so-sensitive
cultural czars, why all the critical hoopla for Sasha
Cohen’s central European caricature?
The film’s location of Borat’s homeland in Kazakhstan, a
part of the world most viewers knows squat about, ensures a
wide screen for projecting any preconceived ideas about
swarthy foreigners. I’m hardly the most PC person around,
but I’m a bit uneasy with ethnic stereotypes based on
geographic blind spots - especially when the production is
a cross between a Hustler cartoon and a Jack Ass sketch.
When Borat returns to his village in Kazakhstan at the end
of the film, he enthusiastically points out a new ritual
that’s replaced the "Running of the Jew" — crucifying
Christians. So what does that make Borat’s religious
background? When asked in the film if he’s Muslim, Borat
ambiguously replies that he "follows the hawk" – a
reference to the Khazakh flag — yet the character looks a
lot to me like a paint-by-numbers portrait of a Muslim.
(Especially considering that Islam is the main faith of
Sasha Cohen has inadvertantly crafted a humourous target
that maps closely over the ethnic bullseye of the Plan for
a New American Century. What if the character wasn’t a
racist, misogynistic Muslim stand-in, but rather a
fire-breathing Zionist caricature? How well would that have
fared in Hollywood? I get that Borat’s appearance and
accent pushes some terror-alert hot buttons in the American
heartland, making for emotionally charged encounters. Yet I
couldn’t get past the mean-spiritedness and manipulation of
When Borat boards a bus full of frat boys, and joins in the
speaking-in-tongues at a megachurch revival, the results
aren’t so much funny as sobering. He also butchers the US
national anthem at a rodeo, but not before getting the
crowd — who look like figures from a Breughel painting — to
cheer on George W. Bush’s ‘war of terror."
In the US, blue state viewers can laugh knowingly at the
fun-house mirroring of the clueless Borat and their red
state brethren. Yet the film goes nowhere Jon Stewart’s
Daily Show colleagues haven’t already, with greater comedic
skill. Cohen is more of an equal-opportunity misanthrope
than a comic, giving Uncle Sam and Islam an equal beating.
There’s lots of frantic action to keep the viewer from
falling asleep, but like a lab frog, this production isn’t
so lively after after a close inspection.