At some point in the mid to late noughties, Borat entered your life. Maybe you gasped, laughed and gagged at the film yourself, or perhaps you were forced to hear “my name-a-Borat!” relentlessly quoted in some kind of strange Slavic accent. Either way, the film was as popular as it was controversial, and it was hard not to be curious about what “that guy from Ali G” was doing. So, what was he doing? And what is he doing now in Borat’s second instalment? The answer: weaponising comedy in the interests of activism, but who are the real victims in his process, and does the end justify the means?
The infamy of the first Borat is not surprising. Its lighter moments include a live chicken being unleashed onto a busy subway and Borat squeezing into that now iconic fluorescent ‘mankini’. But some of the ‘jokes’ were far more offensive. The protagonist repeatedly spouts deeply racist, sexist, antisemitic and homophobic ideas and stereotypes. For example, at a Texan rodeo, Borat sings, “throw the Jew down the well!” to a crowd, with many singing along with him.
You may hear this shocking anti-semitism coming out of Borat’s mouth and argue the film is simply perpetuating hate and giving license and ammunition to people who wish to do the same – and you would not be alone. At the time of the first film’s release, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) warned that it risked “reinforcing bigotry”. It was also banned entirely from almost every country in the Arab world, and Kazakhstan launched a multi-million dollar “Heart of Eurasia” campaign to counter the negative impacts Borat had on how their country was perceived globally.
Clearly, Borat the character offends, but his creator, Sacha Baron Cohen, has a very different agenda. Cohen, who is Jewish, has challenged bigotry and intolerance throughout his life. As a teenager in the UK, he marched once against the Fascist National Front and again to abolish Apartheid. As an undergraduate, Cohen wrote his thesis on the civil rights movement in America, and as a comedian he aims to (in his own words): “Use characters to get people to let down their guard and reveal what they actually believe, including their own prejudice.” With outrageous lines, such as “throw the Jew down the well”, Cohen is not asking you to laugh at his character but instead to observe those who are singing along with him. Borat’s behaviour is abhorrent but fictional and serves as a honey pot to expose the real hatred felt and tolerated by everyone, from unsuspecting shop owners to very public figures within government and high-profile institutions. Cohen disarms his targets by displaying bigotry, intolerance and straight-up stupidity. By believing they are the smartest person in the room, Cohen’s targets are lulled into a sense of security, and frequently respond with shocking levels of these same traits.
Borat 2 really outshines its predecessor with the scope and ambition of Cohen’s selected targets. This would not have been possible without the equally outrageous Maria Bakalova, who plays Borat’s 15-year-old daughter, Tutar. Both are expert provocateurs but, being female, Bakalova exposes the kind of blatant sexism and sickening creepiness in a way that Cohen could never have achieved on his own. When discussing a proposed breast enlargement, for example, Bakalova naively asks the consultant if he would “make sexy talk with her” to which he responds: “If your father wasn’t here, yes.” Moreover, at a pro-life clinic, she exposes the inhumanity of anti-abortion practice when a practicing doctor tells her that “God doesn’t make mistakes”, despite believing that she was underage, pregnant and had been raped by her father. Finally, after an interview with Donald Trump’s personal attorney and former New York Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, Bakalova highlights the predatory instinct prevalent in so many high-profile men, as Giuliani proceeds to grope her and touch himself, after escorting her into his hotel bedroom.
It’s easier to laugh when those being mocked represent the problem – racists, homophobes, misogynists and the like – but what about Cohen’s innocent casualties? The scenes in “Kazakhstan”, for example, present an entire nation as an obscenely primitive, backwards hovel. These scenes were actually filmed in Glod, a Roma village in Romania. The villagers seen in the film are real residents of Glod, who later took legal action against the film as they claim they were recruited under false pretences. One Roma community leader alleged they were told it was a documentary, not a comedy. Cohen’s goal is to satirise Americans’ ignorance of other cultures, so Borat’s “Kazakhstan” representswhat Americans supposedly believe countrieslike Kazakhstan are like. But is it ethical to absolve Cohen’s offense simply because of his underlying intentions? Afterall, Cohen is first and foremost a comedian, and at times it appears that his thirst for laughs outweighs his more noble political agenda.
In 2019, when presented with the ADL’s International Leadership Award, Cohen acknowledged this conflict within his work: “I’m not going to claim that everything I’ve done is for a higher purpose…half my comedy is absolutely juvenile…the other half, completely puerile.” It’s regrettable that Cohen’s conflicting agendas run the risk of discrediting his work’s political ambitions for the sake of a few juvenile chuckles. Jeanise Jones, a social worker who is left to look after Tutar whilst Borat is away, stands out as another unnecessary target in Borat 2. Jeanise genuinely believes that Tutar is being subjected to an oppressive and dangerous regime by her father, and Jeanise is clearly distressed by the ordeal. Additionally, Borat’s final words to Jeanise (“Will you be my new black wife?”) seem to lack purpose, other than an attempt at a cheap gag. Equally, when Cohen (in an extremely uncomfortable scene) enters an open synagogue, and approaches a Holocaust survivor, whilst he is dressed in a crude arrangement of anti-semitic symbols, the targets really believe that their safe place of worship is being threatened.
“If Cohen’s objective in weaponising comedy is to expose hypocrisy, racism and bigotry, then why subject innocent people to it too?”
How can any of Cohen’s innocent victims’ experiences align with the intentions of this unique brand of activism? If Cohen’s objective in weaponising comedy is to expose hypocrisy, racism and bigotry, then why subject innocent people to it too? Unexpectedly, there may still be some value here. Once again, Cohen is not asking us to look at his character but rather the reaction of those around him. Jeanise privately reminds Tutar that her father (Borat) is not telling her the truth and, furthermore, tolerates his behaviour with dignity, so that she can advise him on his wrong doings, in the hopes it will give Tutar a better life. Similarly, the Jewish ladies in the synagogue show remarkable empathy, despite Borat’s unrelenting bigotry, when they sit him down, give him food and listen to his ‘story’. Borat is still acting as a honeypot. Just as his nasty characteristics are often mirrored by others, with a special few it reveals the immense kindness, forgiveness and humanity that people are capable of showing, no matter how trying the circumstances. With such severe examples of antisemitism, there’s no doubt some viewers will still be deeply offended by this scene, no matter what his intentions are. To me, however, the moment where Cohen is sat face to face with an elderly Holocaust survivor, dressed as a proud anti-Semite, and met with nothing but love was extremely touching. The ethics behind Cohen taking this risk with unsuspecting people are undoubtedly questionable, but the footage is a showcase of both the best and the worst of us.
When the audience is aware of Cohen’s intentions, it is easier to be more forgiving of some of Borat’s behaviour, but the worry is that many viewers will take the material at face value and misuse the abundance of offensive soundbites in ways that completely contradict the film’s purpose. I would like to believe, however, that films do have the power to enact change and, though Cohen’s character is not perfect, I admire how he has weaponised comedy to deliver powerful political blows, using some of the most high-profile culprits as puppets in their own demise. In Borat 2, Cohen ridicules some of society’s highest echelons. The question is: will it be enough? In a time where the world has grown accustomed to a clown in the presidency, does poking fun at those in power still have the impact it once did? Only time will tell, but Cohen’s weapon has earned its place in activism’s arsenal, directed at those who believe their ugly truths are above being exposed. Cohen’s character attracts and exposes what is patently wrong and in doing so, reminds us to do what is right: fight against bigots, no matter how loud they shout.
By Alex Urquhart
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