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.
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!