Monday, November 13, 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Lawsuit Against Filmmaker

Over the weekend, Leslie and I saw Borat (we were not alone, it was the top grossing picture). We found it incredibly offensive and loved every minute of it.

We first became aware of Sacha Baron Cohen and his characters on a visit to New York a couple of years ago. We went to a taping of Letterman and "Ali G" was one of the guests. We don't have HBO, so have not followed his series closely, but have always enjoyed the clips and guest shots we have been able to see, and so were looking forward to the movie. That the picture was directed by the brilliant Larry Charles, who wrote many great Seinfeld episodes and is one of the main writers/directors behind Curb Your Enthusiasm, was just icing on the cake for us.

Key to Baron Cohen's comedy is that he uses documentary techniques to do improv with people who were expecting a serious interview. In this way, he throws the interviewee off guard and gets at their true, honest opinions on things they wouldn't have otherwise discussed. He is outrageous and shocking in order to peel back the masks that most people wear in public and expose their dark underside.

As I said, it's offensive and disgusting and positively brilliant. ...

... But not everybody agrees with the "brilliant" part of that.

Among those who don't appreciate the humor of Borat are those who agreed to participate in the film, actually believing they were meeting a reporter from Kazakhstan, not a comedian from London. And, now that the picture is making millions of dollars, they're all planning on suing.

The racist frat boys who gave Borat a ride in "their" RV for a drunken discussion about the benefits of slavery and why it sucks to be a white man in America claim they would never have agreed to be filmed if they knew the movie would be shown in America. And, in good Mel Gibson style, say they would never have lamented the passing of slavery if they were sober.

The residents of the Romanian village that stood in for Borat's Kazakh home are upset as well. Their complaint is that the village, which has no indoor plumbing and in which only four people have full-time employment, was made to look backward and poor. They've never been so humiliated, they say. Well, not everyone... Says local vice-mayor Petre Buzea, "They got paid so I am sure they are happy. These gipsies will even kill their own father for money."

(Read more about the pending lawsuits and Borat bashers at Will Video for Food. - Not everybody is suing: Humor and public speaking coach Pat Haggerty enjoyed the movie.)

Now, it's not that I'm completely unsympathetic to the "victims" of Sacha Baron Cohen's comedy. They were not told the truth about who they were meeting, and how the footage would be used. A certain amount of deception was used in getting them to agree to be on film.

But... they signed the releases. And, more significantly, what they said was their own. None of the racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic comments made by the frat boys (or the guy at the rodeo, or the dinner party, etc.) were read from a script. These people all willingly exposed themselves for what they truly are. Once the cameras were rolling, they were pleased to be able to explain to this poor backward foreigner how America had been destroyed by blacks, Jews, and other undesirables.

With regard to the residents of Glod, Romania, (Glod, by the way, literally translates to "mud") a commenter on This is London put it best:
Does anyone find it significant that if it were not for this movie being made, no would have ever given a damn about the poverty and suffering that existed in this town before Sacha Barron Cohen ever knew it existed? Hurt pride? Misrepresented? These people are clearly in great need. What about the conditions that make it possible for such a town to exist in the first place?
Good point, but it's much easier to point the finger at a comedian (and ask for some of his money) than to admit to either the pervasive racism in our society or our indifference to world poverty.

And maybe, just maybe, that's what Sacha Baron Cohen was pointing out in the first place. See the movie, and help a poor Romanian villager.

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