The film starts as a grainy old infomercial produced by the government of Kazakhstan, featuring Kazakh television’s greatest star, Borat Sagdiyev, as he takes us to his native village, a rural place where cars have to be drawn by horses, where they have a town rapist and farm animals share houses with their owners. We get to meet Borat’s family, including his sister, “the number four prostitute in Kazakhstan” (she has the award to prove it). Borat explains to the viewers that his country suffers from social and economic problems, as well as Jews. Let’s just say that the real government of Kazakhstan was not thrilled.
British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen introduced his character on Da Ali G Show (2003); Borat is an ignorant TV reporter, a cheerful anti-Semite and misogynist who doesn’t know any better. His command of the English language is very poor indeed, always resulting in hilarity. It doesn’t sound terribly funny, and I had my doubts, but the film won me over.
This is a “mockumentary” (if that term is still viable), telling the story of how Borat is sent to the U.S. to make a documentary about this grand nation. He arrives in New York together with his agent, a very obese and sullen man called Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian), but loses interest in his mission a bit when he happens to see an episode of Baywatch and falls in love with Pamela Anderson. He decides to go to California to meet her and have sex with her, and on the way he meets all kinds of people.
The reason why I had my doubts is that I knew Borat would meet a lot of real people who didn’t know that Borat was a character and who would be set up for ridicule. I am not a fan of candid camera pranks; it’s just not my thing. But first of all, Cohen does it with great skill and is genuinely funny, and secondly, there is a very shrewd purpose behind it. Borat encounters some unpleasant people, including a rodeo cowboy and some drunken college students; by acting like an ignoramus he makes them reveal their true racist, homophobic selves – even in front of a camera. There are also several other nice Americans who try to help the foreigner but fall victim to Cohen’s pranks… I feel sorry for them, but they can always comfort themselves in the knowledge of having taken part in something substantial.
Very real and very funny
There are a few familiar faces in the movie. Borat interviews former Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes (but he gets off lightly) and there’s a scene with Pamela Anderson near the ending, which I’m certain Anderson was in on. Davitian is a great companion to Cohen. The brusque agent eventually engages in a fight with Borat when the reporter walks in on him masturbating to a picture of Anderson. The two men, who are buck naked and very hairy, start wrestling on the hotel bed and then chase each other out of the room and into a convention hall full of brokers where they continue to wrestle. It’s all very Jackass, very real and very funny.
There are moments bound to make you feel uneasy, particularly the anti-Semitic ingredients. But they serve to show you what ignorance does to a person. Sacha Baron Cohen exposes prejudice the way Mel Brooks used to do… and it’s nice.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan 2006-U.S. 82 min. Color. Produced by Sacha Baron Cohen, Jay Roach. Directed by Larry Charles. Screenplay: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer. Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat Sagdiyev), Ken Davitian (Azamat Bagatov), Pamela Anderson.
Trivia: The police were allegedly called on Cohen 91 times during the making of the film.
Golden Globe: Best Actor (Cohen).
Quote: “We support your war of terror.” (Cohen to a large crowd of rodeogoers)
Last word: “Even though we knew we hadn’t broken the law it doesn’t mean that you can’t get arrested and held. It’s like even though we knew there were no grounds for the lawsuits, people still continued to sue us. […] I take big risks, but I’m not reckless about it. In Sacha’s case I wanted to make sure he was not worried about anything so he could do what he wanted to do. That was very important for the performance.” (Charles, The Jewish Chronicle)