Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make
Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Produced by Everyman Pictures
Directed by Larry Charles
Screenplay by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, and Dan Mazer
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Produced by Anonymous Content and Zeta Film
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga
Distributed by Paramount Vantage
Sacha Baron Cohen is an investor’s dream. His movie, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, is reaping a return of Midas proportions at the multiplexes. Everything the film mockingly touches—hopeless poverty, inveterate misogyny, sexual degradation, lethal tribalism, even animal cruelty—has turned to pure gold. Borat, America’s number-one movie as I write one week after its release, has already raked in a cool $68 million. Not bad, considering it cost $18 million to make.
I congratulate Cohen, but I feel bound to warn him there’s danger ahead. A fatwa will surely be hurled at his gourd-shaped head any day now. Whether through bravery or foolishness, he has courted the wrath of Muslims in high places. His film flaunts an exceedingly provocative premise. Cohen pretends to be Borat, a television journalist from Kazakhstan who comes to America on a mission to bring some Yankee know-how to his impoverished, backward homeland. He especially wants to know how Americans handle their Jews. For, as he explains in his Kazak-inflected English, “although Kazakhstan a glorious country, it have a problem, too: economic, social, and Jew.” This is tricky business. Borat’s faith is never explicitly identified, but the cards are clearly stacked. Kazakhstan is 47-percent Sunni Muslim, which is the religion of her president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled continuously—and, of course, democratically—since the 1990 Soviet implosion. Her broadcast stations are either owned outright or monitored closely by the state media bureau, run by Nazarbayev’s daughter. Thus, a high-ranking newscaster such as Borat would almost certainly be Muslim. So we have an English Jewish actor playing a Muslim who hates Jews. This was bound to rub some sensitive souls the wrong way, especially since it is painfully clear that Borat hasn’t a particle of jihadi sense. During his American road trip, he stops at a Texas gun shop and asks the proprietor what kind of bullets are best for killing Jews. The untroubled merchant blandly recommends the preferred caliber for the task. Unfortunately, Borat can’t make the purchase. He is traveling on a journalist’s visa and isn’t licensed to kill. The jihadist community will surely be insulted by the spectacle of one of their fellows so lacking in the craft of militant deception.
Borat shames his fellow jihadis in other ways. Although he displays a becoming sense of sex privilege—he addresses feminists as “pussycats” and guffaws incredulously upon learning that American women are permitted to choose their sexual partners—his sense of family honor is decidedly deficient. In the faux documentary that opens the film, he takes his American audience on a tour of his squalid village. At one point, he steps up to a plump blonde and greets her with a long, passionate kiss, then introduces the giggling girl as his sister, “the number-four prostitute in whole of Kazakhstan.”
Cohen’s film extends the shtick he created for BBC 4’s Da Ali G Show. The witless and ever-horny Borat talks tirelessly to everyone he meets but learns nothing for his troubles. He remains hopelessly naive, never realizing that people are offended by his importunate vulgarity. In assuming the role of Borat, Cohen sets out to interview people without letting them in on the gag. Then, when they go on camera, he sandbags them with his faux innocence. While I suspect some of the interviews are staged, others clearly are not. When Borat chats with perennial presidential candidate Alan Keyes—a “genuine chocolate face”—he inquires about some strange, scantily clad men he recently met at a Washington, D.C., parade. “They wanted to take a shower with me,” he confides. Keyes looks a bit uncomfortable but finally suggests that the fellows were probably members of “the gay community” in town for a gay-pride celebration. Borat looks puzzled for a few seconds. “Are you telling me,” he finally gasps, “that the man who tried to put a rubber fist into my anus was a homosexual?” Keyes glances sideways at the camera, his face carefully noncommittal. He realizes he’s been had.
At a rodeo in Texas, Borat, taking note of the cowboys’ flamboyant shirts, tells the unsuspecting owner that, in Kazakhstan, they kill homosexuals. The owner replies, “We’re trying to do that here also.” Changing the subject, this gentleman tells Borat he should shave off his mustache. This way, instead of looking like a Muslim, he’d be taken for an “Eye-talian.” Brought before the audience as the rodeo’s guest of honor, he gives an address in which he congratulates the people on “your war of terror” and assures them he would like nothing better than to see George Bush “drink the blood of every man, woman, and child in Iraq.” With only a smidgeon of uncertainty, the people applaud these sentiments.
Such encounters are the cultural learnings of the film’s subtitle. We are to understand that the people Borat meets are homophobes, racists, hypocrites, and worse. By comparison, Borat’s political incorrectness is merely an accident of having been brought up in a woefully backward country. And, by extension, Cohen is just having a bit of vulgar fun with cross-cultural misunderstandings.
I’m not buying it. The laughs this crass movie provokes leave a sour aftertaste. There’s an underlying meanness of spirit informing almost every frame. Cohen’s contempt for the ordinary people he’s lured into his project is palpable. He takes advantage of their innate civility. Recent reports confirm this. Consider, for instance, the folks in Glod, Rumania, the village Cohen used to simulate Borat’s Kazakhstan home. They have mounted a lawsuit alleging the film’s producers told them the movie was going to be a documentary about their economic troubles. Instead, they were tricked into acting like buffoons who regularly share their homes with their livestock. Furthermore, the producers refused to sign any contracts and paid the villagers a pittance for their contributions. Another lawsuit, filed by two University of South Carolina students, claims the producers got the students drunk, then urged them to engage in crude and racist banter on camera. Cohen, we’re told, is a Cambridge alumnus whose undergraduate thesis concerned the role Jews played in America’s civil-rights movement. What about his dupes? Have they no civil rights?
Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu also wants to impart cultural learnings. Unfortunately, what he has to say in Babel is less interesting than how he says it.
Iñárritu makes brilliant use of a cinematic style dating back to Russian director Sergei Eisenstein. In the 1920’s, Eisenstein declared montage to be nothing less than Karl Marx’s historical dialectic in cinematic action. One shot properly spliced to another creates a “collision of ideas” that endeavors an illuminating Hegelian synthesis. His 1929 film Strike includes a frankly propagandistic sequence in which police beat demonstrating workers into submission, followed by a shot of a bull being butchered. The two images have no relation in time and space. However, when seen in sequence, they inescapably imply the workers are being treated with all the mercy accorded cattle.
Iñárritu, too, specializes in colliding montages of discontinuous images designed to provoke his audience into reassessing what they think they know about the world. Babel opens in a Moroccan desert village, where a Bedouin sells a high-powered rifle to a goatherd who then foolishly gives the weapon to his young sons, instructing them to kill the jackals that are depleting his livestock. An instant later, we’re in an upscale kitchen in San Diego, where a Mexican nanny named Amelia (Adriana Barraza) is talking on the phone to her American boss, Richard (Brad Pitt), who is demanding she stay with his two young children, Debbie and Mike, longer than scheduled. But she has plans to attend her son’s wedding in Tijuana. Richard pleads that this is an emergency. Before we learn what’s wrong, we’re in Tokyo watching a deaf-mute high-school girl headed toward an emotional breakdown. In the wake of her mother’s suicide, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) longs for consolation. Thinking romance might solve her problems, she tries to attract the boys she notices watching her from afar. Upon discovering her affliction at closer quarters, however, the young men invariably recoil. Regarded as a monster, she begins to act accordingly. She flirts monstrously with her dentist by licking his mouth as he examines her teeth. Later, she exposes her pubic hair to some boys in a discotheque. Although Chieko has but the barest connection to the other narratives, she’s clearly meant to be the living symbol of our general ineptitude at communicating sensibly with one another.
In each of these scenes, the camera watches the characters in extreme close-up, limiting the visual field so that we’re uncertain about the larger context. To add to our confusion, events are shuffled back and forth in time without any apparent pattern. All this leaves the viewer wondering where the film is going; so you watch the unreeling events, expecting they will make sense sooner or later. Then, after about 30 minutes, you realize you’re being hurled into a multicultural hall of justice to witness Americans arraigned on charges of being callously indifferent to their less-fortunate Third World cousins. Needless to say, those cousins prove to be noble and long-suffering, displaying exemplary restraint in the face of our bad behavior.
The dots begin to connect when the Moroccan boys shoot at a tourist bus winding along the mountain road far below them. They think the bullet too “lame” to reach it. But it does, wounding Richard’s wife, Susan (Cate Blanchett). The nearest hospital is over four hours away, and Susan will bleed to death before they can reach it. Anwar (Mohamed Akhzam), a kindly Moroccan, offers to take Susan to his village, and Richard accepts. But when they arrive, Richard grows alarmed. Anwar’s village seems a primitive outpost. The practice of its single doctor includes livestock as well as humans. Enraged, Richard pounds on Anwar’s chest, screaming at him and the other Moroccans, demanding they locate an ambulance, contact the American embassy, do something. Instead of striking back, Anwar continues to try to soothe this distressed American. Meanwhile, the shooting has achieved international notoriety. American officials surmise it must be terrorism. Soon, anxious Moroccan authorities begin brutally abusing the locals to try to get the truth.
Back in San Diego, Amelia is preparing to take Debbie and Mike to Tijuana. As they drive south, Debbie expresses dismay: “My mother tells me Mexico is very dangerous.”
The driver, Amelia’s nephew, smiles warmly: “Yes, it’s full of Mexicans.” But it is Americans, not Mexicans, who present the danger. The kids have a wonderful time at the wedding. Upon their return to San Diego, however, Amelia is questioned by imperious border guards. Why, they demand, are there two Anglo children in the back seat? After a series of misunderstandings, Amelia finds herself abandoned by her frightened nephew and lost in the desert with the children.
By this point, I was thoroughly hooked. How was Iñárritu going to resolve this colliding montage? When I found out, however, I was disappointed. The film, finally, is little more than a reductive lesson in multiculturalism. First Worlders must come down from their Tower of Babel and listen to their less-fortunate siblings. But how much more understanding and tolerant can we become without giving the store away? Besides, who’s responsible for what? For instance, Iñárritu portrays our border guards as unfeeling brutes but says nothing against the Mexican government that encourages its people to risk their lives sneaking into the United States. Like Eisenstein, Iñárritu wields montage for propagandistic purposes, but he’s not quite as frank about it.
Politics aside, there’s no denying Iñárritu’s artistry. Consider the scenes with which he frames the film. The first reveals a parched Moroccan village at dawn, looking as it would have many thousands of years ago. The last is a shot of a Tokyo glass apartment tower at night, its reflecting surfaces dizzily winking back the blizzard of neon signs illuminating the impossibly crowded city—an Eisensteinian visual collision. And the synthesis? Perhaps it’s best formulated as a question: If we have come so far, why are we still deaf to one another’s needs? Fair enough, but one wishes this wholly unsurprising accusation were leveled more impartially.