Borat was a film that I had intended to see last year. I’d heard so much about this film and its satire and strangely enough its crossover appeal, that I had to see it. And so I finally watched today with high expectations.
First off, to set things right, the official title of the film is, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan“. <whew>. I needed to state that up front because the name and everything that came afterwards set the stage for a huge satirical experiment. Borat is a mock-umentary about a man from Kazakhstan who goes to America in search of a way to help promote his own country. (Hence the title). The film manages to pack in quite an array of diverse adventures in it’s short one hour-twenty six minute runtime. These adventures take Borat through all kinds of ‘fish out of water’ experiences — from a Sunday morning Pentecostal worship service to a southern garage sale to a New York subway. If nothing else, Borat is certainly not ordinary. And it isn’t at all predictable. You’d truly be lying if you said you knew where each turn would take him and the film crew.
Strangely, this film, while a collection of skits that take the Sasha Baron Cohen character through a number of completely unrelated sequences, manages to maintain a degree of cohesion. The story managed to keep a level of continuity that kept it from being a hodgepodge of unrelated scenes (a la Jackass. Which doesn’t matter, because I thoroughly enjoyed it.) Whether it’s true that Sasha Baron Cohen is a genius and this was a master design or perhaps he just got lucky and somehow these scenes all fit together, the movie maintains a flow that makes it easy to follow.
One of the things that struck me most about this film was how uncomfortable it made me. When it comes to films, I’ve seen some of the most challenging stuff onscreen. Gore, sexual situations, language — I’ve seen it all. But somehow, this film manages to make me turn away more than the gore-ridden scenes as I watch real life people respond to Borat as he does his best to make them feel completely uncomfortable. At first it’s kinda cute and funny when he’s on the train and New Yorkers threaten him with violence. But later on, it starts to become much more intimate. And while I snicker a bit at the situations, I start to fidget a bit as I watch older people, who totally don’t get that this is a joke, react to very off-putting situations.
One thing I must say about Sasha Baron Cohen. Unlike any that has come since, he has managed to be the closest thing to Andy Kaufman. While many would cry blasphemy at the thought that I’d try and compare the guy who does Ali G to the comic genius of Kaufman, but what many don’t recall is that Andy wasn’t really cool mainstream until he died. He was just annoying to a lot of folks. He made you squirm in your chair. And you never knew quite when he was joking or when he was serious. Much in the same way, Sasha has managed to do almost no interviews since the films release without being in character, his efforts to shock, disturb and disrupt our norms is what makes him interesting to watch. And while he hasn’t done anything as wild as wrestle Jerry Lawler or tape lunch with Fred Blassie, he is certainly on his way. I was kinda proud that he decided to turn down the offer to present at the Oscars because they asked him to do it out of character. And I’m not even a fan of his shows.
So, did I like the film? Well, yes. But not on the level that most folks probably appreciated it. I’m no deeper than anyone else, but my impression from talking to many who saw the film was that people were reacting the the humorous nature of the situation. While I found those situations funny (as well as uncomfortable) I think the film works on a very different level when you stop focusing on Borat and you start to examine these everyday folks who are literally from a cross section of the country who emit some of the worst behavior. While some of Borat’s behavior is ridiculous and crude, one might argue that with the exception of one lone local station weatherman, that everyone in the film was really no better in how they reacted to Borat. In fact, some of the worst behavior in the movie comes from the people who aren’t featured. I was amazed that these people weren’t able to stop the footage from making it into the film. Much of it is very unflattering (to say the least). For me, this movie works best as a mirror put up to our faces at just how insensitive we can be (when we think nobody’s looking.) I think that South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut, works better as a satire piece, but this one should definitively give film classes and psychology classes much to discuss.
Borat is a very unique film that will definitely have you walking away thinking about it for a few days. It’s not a particularly exceptional satirical film and probably not even among the best mock-umentaries. But it does make you laugh, (and squirm), but more importantly, it should make you think. Check this one out. (And for a good discussion among friends, talk about your reactions to the non-featured characters that we meet.)