Saturday, November 18, 2006

"Borat": I don't get it

I haven't seen the Candid Camera/improv movie "Borat" yet, but I'm pretty sure I'd have fun watching it, as I'm all about politically incorrect humor. At the same time, I feel sympathy for some of the innocent folks who were hoodwinked into making themselves look foolish on camera. I'm thinking mainly of the small-town Romanians whose village, Glod, doubled as a fictional village in "Borat's" alternate-reality version of Kazakhstan.

Sacha Baron Cohen, a devout Jew who plays the sexist, homophobic, antisemitic Kazakh journalist Borat, has been quiet during the recent eruption of controversy regarding his film, but he finally had this to say about the outrage directed at him and his movie:

I was surprised, because I always had faith in the audience that they would realise that this was a fictitious country and the mere purpose of it was to allow people to bring out their own prejudices. And the reason we chose Kazakhstan was because it was a country that no one had heard anything about, so we could essentially play on stereotypes they might have about this ex-Soviet backwater. The joke is not on Kazakhstan. I think the joke is on people who can believe that the Kazakhstan that I describe can exist - who believe that there's a country where homosexuals wear blue hats and the women live in cages and they drink fermented horse urine and the age of consent has been raised to nine years old...

A question then arises: how does Cohen expect you to react to the film? It seems that, if you laugh along with Borat at his victims, you may be guilty of revealing your inner prejudices. If you react with outrage, you're guilty of either having no sense of humor, or of taking the film's obviously exaggerated approach too seriously.

I suppose Cohen can be understood to want us all to examine ourselves. A theater full of laughing people will be a mixture of those who laugh because they actually share Borat's various prejudices, and those who laugh because they understand what Cohen is really trying to do. Which person are you? Cohen is asking.

But on some level, I think Cohen is being disingenuous. The fact remains that the people in "Borat" are not in on the joke. This doesn't bother me when it comes to exposing the prejudices of uneducated hicks and frat boys, but some of the folks in the movie probably entered into the Boratic experience in good faith, and they have a right to be dismayed at how they've been used. If Cohen's basic message is that we should honestly examine ourselves, why does he use deception to make this point?

Ah, hell, I just need to see the movie. Perhaps the real fundamental message-- true of any "Candid Camera"-style endeavor-- is Be humble enough to laugh at yourself.


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