'Borat' Offends, Entertains While Mirroring Society

Sacha Baron Cohn as 'Borat' holds a sign saying 'Malibu.' i i

Despite the sign, our Kazakh friend's true destination is Hollywood. Is America ready? 20th Century Fox hide caption

itoggle caption 20th Century Fox
Sacha Baron Cohn as 'Borat' holds a sign saying 'Malibu.'

Despite the sign, our Kazakh friend's true destination is Hollywood. Is America ready?

20th Century Fox

Borat features British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen as a fictional television journalist from Kazakhstan on a tour of the United States. The satire is biting and discomforting. But it's also funny and well-suited for our times.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now here's a review of the movie that Tom Cruise missed out on. It's from the British comic Sasha Baron Cohen. His character is Borat. Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION film critic Kenneth Turan has been watching.

KENNETH TURAN: You will laugh at Borat, you really will. But laughter will sometimes stick in your throat. This is partially intentional, because Borat's subversive social commentary comes with an ironclad shock and offend guarantee.

Borat, or to give it its full title, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, is the brainchild of British comedian Sasha Baron Cohen. He's a performer who's touched by a kind of genius so savage it makes you reconsider the very nature of comedy.

(Soundbite of movie "Borat")

Mr. SASHA BARON COHEN (Comedian): (as Borat) The Ministry of Information decide to make this film about America because we want to be like you. America have most beautiful womens in world. For example, Liza Minnelli and Elizabeth Taylor. It also center for democracy and porno. I like.

TURAN: Borat Sagdiyev is a fictional television journalist from Kazakhstan, a real country but portrayed here as a hotbed of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and all around inappropriate behavior. Borat is such a product of his politically incorrect culture that his actions are intended to make us question aspects of our own.

The film is a kind of documentary, recording Borat's adventures in what he calls the U.S. and A., with each episode intended to be more outrageous and potentially offensive than the last. We don't laugh at all of this, but we laugh at more of it than would seem possible, in part because of Cohen's powerful comic gifts.

This is a very smart guy with the innate likeability all comedians have to have. And he submerges himself so deeply into his Borat persona, you wonder if he could come up for air even if he wanted to. But because almost no one in the film knows that Borat is putting him or her on, our laughter also makes us uncomfortable. We laugh out of astonishment and disbelief, out of embarrassment for what the people onscreen are going through, and because we simply can't figure out any other way to respond.

Cohen's corrosive brand of take no prisoners humor scalds on contact and makes him the most intentionally provocative comedian since Lenny Bruce and the early days of Richard Pryor. But because he is willing to mock whoever crosses his path, he ends up baiting the harmless and playing ordinary people for fools, just because they are gullible and have the bad luck to run into him.

Unlike his predecessors, there is a mean spiritedness, a lurking every-man-for-himself coldness about this humor. Brilliant and funny though he his, Sasha Baron Cohen and his love of transgression and humiliation are finally very much of and about our time. We deserve each other, and we might as well laugh.

INSKEEP: Kenneth Turan, film critic for MORNING EDITION and for the Los Angeles Times.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Kazakhstan Embassy Responds to Borat

Borat and Vassilenko

Borat (left) and Kazakhstan embassy spokesman Roman Vassilenko differ on the facts about Kazakhstan. Can you tell the difference between Kazakh fact and fiction? Scroll down to take our quiz. Twentieth Century Fox and Phyllis Fletcher/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Twentieth Century Fox and Phyllis Fletcher/NPR

Ten Borat "Facts"

Kazakhstan embassy spokesman Roman Vassilenko disputes Borat's facts on Kazakhstan.

Borat says: Kazakhstan is the No. 1 exporter of potassium.

Vassilenko says: Kazakhstan's oil industry is responsible for the country's economic boom.

 

Borat says: Prostitution is one of the major industries in Kazakhstan.

Vassilenko says: Women in Kazakhstan are more likely to be doctors, lawyers, and teachers than prostitutes.

 

Borat says: The traditional Kazakh beverage is fermented horse urine.

Vassilenko says: The traditional Kazakh beverage is fermented horse milk.

 

Borat says: The Kazakhstani greeting is "jagshemash."

Vassilenko says: "Salamatsyz ba" is "good afternoon" in Kazakh.

 

Borat says: The Running of the Jews is a favorite pastime in Kazakhstan.

Vassilenko says: Horse racing and other games on horseback are popular at Kazakhstani festivals.

 

Borat says: The "2003 Tulyakev Reforms" are responsible for such freedoms as women being allowed to ride on the inside of a bus.

Vassilenko says: Kazakhstan's biggest governmental change in recent history was its independence in 1991. Women have had the right to vote in Kazakhstan since 1924.

 

Borat says: Kazakhstan's space program launches chimpanzees and toddlers into orbit.

Vassilenko says: Kazakhstan participates in the International Space Station program, and hosts the station's docking site in its steppes.

 

Borat says: Kazakhstan's embassy spokesman Roman Vassilenko is an "Uzbek imposter."

Vassilenko says: Vassilenko is a proud patriot of Kazakhstan. His country is home to many migrant workers from its northern neighbor Uzbekistan.

 

Borat says: Borat has no connection with comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, and would support Kazakhstan if it decided to sue him.

Vassilenko says: Another spokesman for Kazakhstan once said his government "reserved the right" to legal action against Cohen. No specific threat of a lawsuit was made or intended.

 

Borat says: Gays in Kazakhstan once had to wear blue hats, and are executed by hanging.

Vassilenko says: Homophobia is a social ill in America.

Kazakhstani pride is tender; the country is only 15 years old, which is why some Kazakhs don't know what to make of Borat, the fictional Kazakhstani reporter portrayed by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. Borat is raising eyebrows with antics that include songs like "Throw the Jew Down the Well," and his insinuations that homosexuals in Kazakhstan once had to wear blue hats.

Gauhar Abdygaliyeva, a native of Kazakhstan, is furious at the misrepresentation of her country. Abdygaliyeva is a student in Washington, D.C., and has been hearing false information spread about her country for years.

"That is not nice. And if someone finds it's funny, well, you know, good for them. I just hope you have fun. But as we live in this, you know, very diversified world, it is always important to remember that you do not pick on people," Abdygaliyeva says, "You do not pick on their traditions."

The Kazakhstani government agrees, running four-page ads in The New York Times and U.S. News and World Report and commercials on CNN and the local ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C.

Vassilenko says his office planned the public-relations blitz in conjunction with President Nazabayev's recent trip to the United States. He says the campaign has nothing to do with Borat's movie coming out in a few weeks, but he admits that the ads are a response to Borat.

Vassilenko says that ignoring Borat entirely would be wasting an opportunity to tell the true story of Kazakhstan.

"[Borat] claims that the Kazakhs are very anti-Semitic people and that running of the Jews is the famous pastime. That is, of course, ridiculous," Vassilenko says. "Kazakhstan has a very vibrant Jewish community."

Vassilenko also wants to set the record straight about what Kazakhs drink. Borat claims it is fermented horse urine, but it is actually a beverage called kumyss, made of fermented horse milk.

Vassilenko's most liberating moment was the day he saw the new flag fly over Kazakhstan's capital in 1992. It was the day he knew he was free from Communist Party youth camps — and free from being hauled off to surprise government meetings. He understands that Borat is joking, but he wants people to know the truth about Kazakhstan, as well.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.