Point counterpoint: Borat

By Andrew Mason

Andrew Mason: Cultural learnings: Very nice!

I admit it, I laughed and I laughed hard. If you didn’t laugh, then you probably left the theater 10 minutes in. I don’t deny that I felt a little guilty afterward but only a little. For that, I have my conscience to blame.

But I shed no tears for most of Borat’s vapid American co-stars. Make no mistake, they are the main attraction. Their reactions to a hollow character like Borat are the only reason the film rises above extremely crude (albeit hilarious) humor. It was not big news to me that many Americans don’t hold “politically correct” views or that they remain largely ignorant of other cultures and largely apathetic about learning, but still I laughed.

Unfortunately, the biggest news about the film is not about its scathing critique of American culture but rather the approaching lawsuits. It seems that in spite of everyone’s closeted prejudices, nothing brings people together like the hope of a payday. Perhaps Sacha Baron Cohen’s most lasting contribution to comedy will be finding out how so many people will sign themselves away for a quick buck.

Usually, I’m disinclined to think that ends justify means but the Americans that were supposedly exploited really got paid a few hundred dollars to learn a valuable lesson about tolerance. Even as Borat rings up $100 million plus haul, you still can’t put a price on humility (or 15 minutes of fame).

It matters little that Borat was an act if the people in the movie didn’t realize it. Their behavior therefore cannot be hidden behind an artistic veil. It is supremely ironic that sometimes we must be lied to in order to see the truth about ourselves.

The minority groups and foreigners that claim to have been exploited and offended by Borat can be comforted that Cohen is an equal opportunity offender. In fact, while Borat is anti-Semitic, Cohen is Jewish; while he is said to be from Kazakhstan, his village (Glod) is actually in Romania (literal translation: “mud”, no joke); while Borat speaks Hebrew, his advisor Azamat speaks Armenian; and both utilize other Slavic languages that most Americans (myself included) could not differentiate. Quite literally, it’s all Greek, er, Kazakh to me.

In reality, it is not Cohen’s caricature of a bumbling citizen of a backward nation that’s offensive. What’s offensive is that the Americans in the movie didn’t know the difference between a real foreigner and a TV star. Unlike the quasi-Kazakhs in Borat’s village, we have the means to educate ourselves about the world but choose not to.

I laughed because the best comedy makes us laugh at ourselves. I gladly concede the moral high ground if it makes the critics happy. But judging by attendance figures and rave reviews, that high ground is looking pretty empty these days.

We should thank Borat. Without this movie, we would have remained blissfully ignorant of Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (and Cultural Learnings of America). Maybe we still are, but at least we know and knowing is half the battle. High five!

Lally Gartel: Funny, but problematic

My opposition to the whole Borat phenomenon, including the movie, isn’t that it isn’t funny. It is, in an obscenely guilty, awful sort of way. It isn’t that it doesn’t say important things about the problems of any culture. I dislike it because, as a member of the whole “Jackass” genre, the idea behind Borat is pure schadenfreude: making profit and laughing at the expense of the misery and humiliation of others, except in this case, without their consent.

Of course, the fact that I have family in, and am myself a Jew from, a former Soviet Republic certainly helps my distaste for Borat. And every culture, American or formerly Soviet, has serious cultural issues it must work out. But it seems that throughout Borat’s cultural learnings in the U.S., the Americans are evil and tactless. That is unfortunate for them, but at the end of the day they can go back to their single family homes and revel in civilization.

Not to ruin the movie for everyone, but Kazakhs, on the other hand, defecate in public, wrestle naked over semi-nude pictures of famous actresses, do not understand the concept of toilet paper, sell their sisters into sexual slavery and hunt down the tears of Gypsies to bring themselves good luck. The best part, though, is that Sacha Baron Cohen has chosen to misrepresent a society that Americans know even less about than the Middle East, which is stereotyped in all sorts of negative ways in humor.

As I left the movie theater, a girl behind me asked her friend if the guy in the movie was actually from Kazakhstan. So, the truth is that at least some people definitely don’t understand that Borat is entirely a parody. Few people know what Kazakhs generally look like, or that Borat does not look or talk like one, and neither do the other supposedly Kazakh people in the movie. But this is forgivable, since it is a parody of stereotypes, right?

Yes, except people don’t have any preconceptions or stereotypes already present about Kazakh people. Americans don’t even seem to know where Kazakhstan is or what language they speak there or that it is a largely Muslim country or that many of the people there are descendents of Mongol and other Asian tribes. So what Cohen does is not just use a parody of a foreigner to show the problems of U.S. culture, he essentially forms the new mainstream conception of Kazakhstan latently, since most of us aren’t going to go home and look up Kazakhstan in the CIA World Factbook after watching the movie.

So we walk out of the theatre en masse, shocked by how offensive and graphic everything was, still laughing hysterically at the horror of American culture, not even thinking this is the only Central Asian geography and sociology lesson we’ll ever have. This type of humor isn’t new or untried, but I’d like to posit that the subtle but similar examinations of the Daily Show, the Colbert Report or Michael Moore’s documentaries are all far more tasteful, informative and enjoyable than Borat was.