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What Does The Borat Phenomenon Say About The World?

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Sacha Baron Cohen has a hit on his hands. There's no question about that. Since its opening just over two weeks ago, Borat is currently grossing $67,111,765. Not bad for the "Little Documentary for Kazakhstan" that it claimed to be. Funny will do that, I suppose, and there's no question the film is funny. It has already been voted by IMdB users to be the 149th greatest film of all time. All time. Impressive. Especially for a film the MPAA rated R for "for pervasive strong crude and sexual content including graphic nudity, and language."

Cohen takes his signature character Borat, from his wildly popular Da Ali G Show, on a romping road trip from Kazakhstan across America. Along the way he meets a bevy of interesting characters, portraits of American and Russian stereotypes and prejudices, and interviews them for his "documentary." Hilarity ensues, but the film gets under your skin at the same time; somewhere in the back of your brain there is this little voice picking at you, saying, "Something here is just not right."

I didn't figure out what it was until a few days after I saw the film. It was then that I began to read the news stories about the questionable methods used by Cohen and his crew in getting their little film made.

Not only has The European Center for Antiziganism Research filed a complaint against the film for defamation and inciting violence against the Roma and Sinti people, the film is being blocked from distribution in many countries and the lawsuits are pouring in.

'Borat'I watched the film, and assumed it was made much like Punked — a joke was played on a real person, they then learned that they were the brunt of the joke, and signed a release agreeing to appear on screen. All for the sake of good comedy.

Not the case with Borat. It seems Cohen and his crew deliberately misled participants in the movie. Not only did they really think this man was a reporter from Kazakhstan, they were asked to sign an iron-clad release form before shooting began for what they were told would be a little documentary shown in Kazakhstan. They were promised the film would never be shown in America.

Never, after the filming wrapped, were these people informed that they had been duped, or that they would be appearing in a major American motion picture with distribution from 20th Century Fox. When they found out, many where understandably angry. One lawsuit, filed by young men from a college fraternity, claims that they were taken to a bar to loosen up before filming began and encouraged to make sexist remarks against women.

But Cohen's no dummy. The slew of lawsuits has done nothing to slow the pace of the film, which is still holding at a tie for the number two spot at the box-office.

My question is not about the popularity of the film, or even its standing as a cultural phenomenon.

My question is about ethics. What does it say about us as Americans, as members of a world society, when we can support this type of deceit? Today it was in the name of humor. But what comes next? Politics? War? Crime? Drugs?

The ethical slope is a slippery one. And we need to be aware of it not tripping, slobbering drunk, over its path thinking "next time we'll pay more attention." Pay attention now, because the next time our rights are violated, it may not be so funny!

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About Aurel Montgomery

  • http://handyfilm.blogspot.com handyguy

    If the participants had been duped into portraying themselves falsely, that would be one thing. But what makes the best parts of the movie so brilliant is that Baron Cohen gives these folks the rope and they hang themselves. They show us [at least in most cases] who they really are. Understandably, they don’t always like what they see.

    A lot of the movie is just filler between the reality zingers, and I like Borat in 10-minute doses on HBO much more. But questioning his ethics, and the audience’s ethics, seems to me to serve little purpose. The best art has often been offensive and subversive.

  • cheezy

    Borat is by no stretch of an overactive imagination Art. Inducing anyone into saying certain things, with the sole purpose of making one’s self rich is a breach of ethics, surely. Keep in mind Cohen is counting his pennies while the careers and/or reputations of the people he duped are damaged, perhaps irrevocably. Regardless of the bigotry shown by these individuals, there is no excuse for exploitation.

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    Aurel, Cohen certainly wasn’t playing very nice. He set people up to look like fools. Still, he didn’t take their money (despite being Jewish), and he didn’t hurt anyone. People knew there were cameras, and they did sign the waivers. If some of them ended up looking foolish, it was mostly their own fault.

    I would also defend this on grounds of results that are both comic and sociologically interesting, however you want to take them. If some feelings got hurt, file under “You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs.”

    The whole project reminds me of the controversy surrounding the work of Stanley Milgram. The Borat movie is sort of a tricky Jew’s Milgram experiment.

    BORAT PHOTO GALLERY.

  • http://handyfilm.blogspot.com handyguy

    “…Borat is by no stretch of an overactive imagination Art…”

    Several of the original short individual Borat segments on ‘Da Ali G Show’ most definitely qualify as art. They are brilliantly innovative, they expand your mind, and they showcase one of the best improvisational comic actors who has ever lived.

    Much of the movie Borat is of lower quality than that, but it has great moments.

  • http://thoughtprovoked.com Aurel Montgomery

    I’m certainly not questioning Cohen’s brilliance or even whether or not his final product qualifies as “Art”. And I definitely don’t condemn anyone for seeing the film. Hell, I did.

    It’s merely a case of whether or not the means justify the end.

    In my opinion, an ethical person would have, after he had gotten the film he wanted, fessed up to the real reason he was filming them, and then let them decide, with all the facts before them, whether or not they wanted to be a part of that ploy. Sure, he may have had to go through a few more people to get releases, but who’s to say the final result wouldn’t have been even better?

    I just see it as an interesting trend that we need to keep our eyes open to.

    Thanks for the comments!

    Aurel

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    Handyguy is certainly right. Cheezy denies that Borat is an artistic statement only because he doesn’t approve of the statement, not because there isn’t art to it. There clearly is.

    You might argue that you don’t think it’s very good, or that you’re offended by the scatological material, or that you think he’s unfair, or a dozen other directions of disapproval. But this ain’t just a Jackass movie, and there’s definitely a lot more going on than mere grossing out. You might perfectly legitimately disapprove or not enjoy it, but it’ll take more to refute the movie than simply to say that it’s just stupid.

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    Aurel, again I can appreciate your concern about deceptiveness in the Borat approach, but to call it “unethical” really seems to be stretching the point. Most especially, this last sentence of your original story seems totally unjustified, when you speak of “the next time our rights are violated.” What “rights” was he violating here, exactly?

  • http://handyfilm.blogspot.com handyguy

    I am more disturbed by the success of movies like Saw and its sequels. Now that’s depravity.

  • http://thoughtprovoked.com Aurel Montgomery

    There are two types of ethics of concern here. The first is Normative Ethics, our basic concept of right from wrong. Most ethicists would agree that misleading someone in order to profit from their good natured willingness to beleive that what they are being told is true, is unethical.

    Second we have the issue of Legal Ethics. There were legal documents involved here, which were I’m sure designed to cover the bases that Cohen was going to run. This is the slope the concerns me the most. If there is no ethical code governing those who practice law and they join in the game of ‘lets see how we can get away with twisting the law for profit’, it leads to a society at large who does the same, then our rights as citizens who rely on those same laws for protection are indeed being violated.

  • Beezer

    Borat was the WORST and crudest film I have ever seen. Total waste of time. There were some truly funny & entertaining elements, but overall-disgusting! I could do without the image of two ugly, naked men wrestling in the hotel room. Since when is women getting raped, sodomy & incest funny and something to make a joke of onscreen? This film is blatantly disrespectful of Muslims- painting them as ignorant, incestuous, uneducated people. It portrays black women as whores. It paints Americans as bigots, sexists and religious fanatics. It is insulting to people of Jewish origin and SHAME on Sacha Baron Cohen for showing such disregard for his heritage! I did not enjoy the film and I feel it is an insult to any intelligence and dignity we have left in this world.

  • http://handyfilm.blogspot.com/ handyguy

    Beezer, you certainly missed most of the points of the movie. It’s designed to make you uncomfortable, at which apparently it succeeded, but it doesn’t *endorse* all the crude elements in its jokes…quite the opposite. Are you familiar with the concept of irony?

    Borat, a fictional character, is a deliberately over the top caricature. He expresses bigotry toward Jews, Gypsies, gays, and women to get a reaction from the nonactors in the movie and in the audience, not to put down Jews, Gypsies, gays, and women! And, wonder of wonders, many of the nonactors agree with his outrageous views [in part because he complicates things by making Borat a rather lovable, bumbling idiot]. This makes some of us laugh, very hard. I’m sorry you had a bad time.

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    Aurel, you might have some legitimate complaint in the general sense that you describe as “normative ethics.” Cohen was deceptive. He certainly abused the goodwill and hospitality of the Americans, in ways that were sometimes not very nice. You might have some reasonable grounds for arguing that he sinned, ie made personal moral transgressions for which perhaps he’ll someday have to answer to his maker.

    But I don’t see much legitimate sounding argument that anything he did was or should be against the law of the land. Look, they signed the damned release forms. He might not have let on that he was an actor in character, but he didn’t cheat them out of anything or do anything to them. If they are embarassed, it’s because they themselves said stupid stuff knowing there’s a camera on them. Now perhaps the plaintiffs will get some tricky Jew lawyer to come up with some clever legal theories explaining why Fox and Cohen should have to give them money for nothing. That’s possible, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

    Beezer, I’d disagree pretty strongly with your whole take, but that’s mostly just opinion. But you’re pretty much completely wrong to say that Borat disrespected Muslims. In fact, Cohen went out of his way to specifically NOT make Borat Muslim. “I follow the hawk” is the most I’ve seen of a Borat religion- though the Muslim community would deserve such skewering certainly far more than America.

    Borat did not particularly paint black women as whores. He called a prostitute (an IMDB credited professional actress), who turned out to be black. You’re just making up the racial issue on Borat there.

    The racial offense Cohen made here, if any, was the likely intended but unearned smear of racism he was offering against the white folks for running him and his black prostitute off.

    The main target he’s intending to skewer is Red State America, so they would be the ones who might most have legitimate grievance- but not really even them. Cohen or Borat doesn’t particularly say anything against US, but offered some citizens good opportunity to say foolish things.

    In short, if the Borat movie makes in places an unfavorable portrait of America, it’s only because some of our own didn’t represent well for US.

  • STM

    The whole thing is just a giant piss-take … so why are we all so worried.

    It’s all good fun. I know some Americans are more angry about the way Baron Cohen’s methods end up poking fun at Americans than anything else, but I can tell you that in various guises and for many years, he has been poking fun at everyone – including his own countrymen.

    Have we really lost our collective sense of humour so much that we have to engage in hand-wringing over a comedian taking the piss out of us all???

  • zingzing

    the movie makes fun of americans when they deserve it. the homophobe at the rodeo deserves everything he gets, as do the frat boys. i mean, does the dinner-party scene really say anything about americans, even southerners, that we didn’t already know? at that point, he’s just parading his poop around and calling up strippers.

    it doesn’t really make fun of americans in general, just the racists, misogynists and homophobes out there in the united states.

    so, if you react badly, or feel some sympathy for the people getting reamed, well, go suck an egg, you fuck.

  • http://thoughtprovoked.com Aurel Montgomery

    ZingZing,

    Thank you for so eloquently proving my point.

    “so, if you react badly, or feel some sympathy for the people getting reamed, well, go suck an egg, you fuck.”

    Yes, let’s just all choose apathy, and see where the world ends up in ten years. Sympathy? Why should anyone want to feel that? People getting reamed? Not my problem. In other words let’s have no ethics. Let us all be barbarians and nit-wits. That will be the best route to a great new world order.

    And yet, you aren’t really apathetic are you? You took the time to post. Maybe there is something worse in the air than apathy. An actual distaste for ethics and those who try to point them out. A disrespect for anyone different than ourselves.

    This is called ignorance. The surest path to war and chaos ever invented.

    -Aurel

  • STM

    Aurel … for God’s sake lighten up. The character of Borat is nothing more than a theatrical device.

    It’s comedy, pure and simple. Let’s put this into perspective. And Baron Cohen takes the piss out of everyone (including his own countrymen) in his different guises, not just Americans.

    I’m sure he’d be amused at the hand-wringing he’s caused on the other side of the Atlantic, though.

    Bizarre

  • http://thoughtprovoked.com Aurel Montgomery

    My last comments really had nothing to do with the movie, just the silliness this has all caused. I think the discussion has by now moved beyond that. Yes it’s just a movie, yes it’s just a silly little article..

    And when people are willing to leave ignorant comments…

    Well, I guess I just can’t help but point that out.

    If you all think this is really about a movie, you are wrong, and maybe I failed at expressing myself.

    Like I said before, It’s just raises some interesting questions. But we have to be willing to look at a much bigger picture than the film, or Cohen or any of his jokes.

    We have to be willing to look at society, and most importantly ourselves.

    -Aurel

  • zingzing

    aurel–

    you say, “Maybe there is something worse in the air than apathy. An actual distaste for ethics and those who try to point them out… This is called ignorance.”

    now, lemme see. a “distaste for ethics and those who try to point them out?” now, if you had watched the movie, wouldn’t you classify the borat character as an attempt to “point out” the nasty “ethics” of his chosen targets?

    no, i have no “sympathy” for racists, misogynists and homophobes, as i am not a racist, misogynist or a homophobe. “sympathy” implies that i have something in common with them, which i don’t.

    empathy? maybe. i do feel sorry for the bigots borat so ably displays for everyone to see. maybe i am embarrassed for them. of course, that’s pretty funny, so they get an embarrassed laugh out of me.

    i think you totally miss the point of the vulgar humor in the movie. it’s out to digust you. so, if you are disgusted by the humor, what are you really disgusted by? the people that create that humor, of course.

    and i’m sure that won’t lead to a world of chaos and war… of course, neither will it lead to your fabled “great new world order…”

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Brother Al,

    I read your blog link, and then your additional comment re-emphasizing some of its points.

    Take you blog piece – pour some real anti-Jewish venom into it – and you have what a lot of us over here are concerned about:

    the “tricky Jews screw people over” image. In the eyes of a real hater, that can be turned into an anti-Jewish riot – not a laff riot either.

    Connect the dots, boychik…

  • http://thoughtprovoked.com Aurel Montgomery

    Zing Zing,

    You are still missing my point. I understand the humor behind what the “Borat” character, even if you want to call it “heroicly” does in pointing out imperfections in the world and some closed minded attitudes. That’s all well and good. I don’t have a problem with that. Never said I did.

    My ONLY complaint about the film is his methods of getting those people on tape. Period.

    Now, you say you do feel some empathy for these people, though not for the same reason’s I do apparently. Whatever. That’s great, again….not even what I was implying. Before your words were a bit more choice and I felt the need to comment not just to you, but to the hundreds of other people I’ve come across whose attitude towards anyone else being wronged in any way seems to be a collective “Who Cares!”

    In my book, that’s just a little bit selfish.

    -Aurel

  • zingzing

    those people who were wronged deserved to be wronged. they were nasty people. the guy at the rodeo who wants to hang gay people? he got what he deserved.

    the list goes on and on. those who aquitted themselves admirably… say, the dinner party guests (for the most part), were not wronged in the least. sure, they had an interesting evening, and get to be in a movie… but they didn’t come off as assholes. only he did. no harm, no foul, i say.

    i guess i see your point of view, or at least where it is coming from, a little bit better now. but! i still think that those who are bringing lawsuits against this movie (with the exception of the little town in russia or whatever) got what they deserved and i’m glad they are outed as what they are: racists, homophobes, etc.

  • http://thoughtprovoked.com Aurel Montgomery

    I don’t think I can ever agree that anyone DESERVES to be wronged.

    The very word “wronged” implies they were treated unfairly or unjustly.

    Yes, people do ignorant, bigoted, racist and silly things. Those are their chosen faults. I’m sure even you have one or two of your own.

    What sort of WRONGING do you deserve? And who gets to decide that?

  • zingzing

    hmmph. i guess i do deserve to be wronged. or at least have my faults pointed out to me. and they have been, i assure you. of course, i felt pretty horrible about it, and i changed my ways. so, it did me some good. wrong me, i say, if i deserve it.

  • Kris

    Aurel,

    I agree completely.
    As far as “they signed the waiver”: Yes, as presented to them by a person using a false name and a rather deceptive company front. Unless you are a lawyer you won’t go through all the fine print when someone says it’s just a formality. Legal? I’m sure it is. Honest? Not by my definition.
    Unless you are of the “can’t happen to me” school of thought, the only long term solution is to trust no one. That’s a society I don’t want.

    (PS. Quite frankly, “They signed the waiver” sounds frighteningly close to “she wore a short skirt and got drunk”.)

  • mike rodent

    there’s a lot of anger in Baron Cohen. It seems that much of this is anger at antisemitism. Not being a follower of his I have no idea how honest he may ever have been about this, but I suspect probably not much. It seems that his view is that across the world, particularly from Calais eastwards, antisemitic attitudes persist and are if anything more sinister than in the 1930s through being suppressed by dint of societal ethics. I strongly suspect that this is how he is able to justify the shabby (at best) treatment meted out to ordinary Romanians. It was obviously also a fairly explicit undercurrent to the mockery of Kazakhs. It also helps understand the “thickness” of Ali G. Maybe it is mockery, more generally, of casually ignorant antisemitism, wherever it may be found. The problems are on the one hand his financial stake in all this and on the other his hypocrisy: by mocking particular ethnic groups, whether it be UK Muslims, Romanians, Roma, Kazakhs, Austrians or Americans, he is in fact himself trading, to his pecuniary profit, on the cheapest and nastiest forms of racism. And by the way, please no-one say “Americans aren’t an ethnic group”: Americans are diverse but they are also human beings… so must come within the sphere of ethnicity.