Saturday, December 23, 2006

Cultural learnings of America

"Kazakhstan, greatest country in the world
All other countries are run by little girls."

So runs the first two lines of the alternative Kazakhstan national anthem as imagined by the country's most well-known export, Borat Sagdiyev. Borat gives the ode a fine rendition to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner at a rodeo in Salem, Virginia. The anthem concludes with the fine line “Come grasp the mighty penis of our leader from junction with the testes to tip of its face!” This scene is one of the many funny moments of the film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Borat is a Kazakh television journalist who is dispatched to the US to record a documentary for the Kazakh Ministry of Information. He is openly racist, misogynistic, homophobic, anti-Semitic and totally un-housetrained.

Borat also skilfully skewers American intolerance in one of the funniest films of 2006. The movie is a cross between a mockumentary and gonzo journalism. The narrative, such that it exists, is about Borat's travels across America in search of his dream woman. That woman is Baywatch’s Pamela Anderson with whom he “would very much like to make a romantic liquid explosion on her stomach”. The actor Sacha Baron Cohen brilliantly channels the Kazakh reporter with mangled English and he deftly skewers his victims who are strung along by his na├»ve discourtesy.

Along the way, he has a serious of increasingly uproarious adventures involving such props as a bear in an ice cream van, a Washington gay parade, three drunken frat boys, a riotous TV interview, a Southern dinner party, nude wrestling at an Insurance convention and a conversion moment at a revivalist meeting. Eventually he meets the women of his dreams after expressing incredulity that she (Anderson) has attended a rally “against” animal cruelty. At a book signing, he tries to coerce her into joining him in a “real” Kazakh wedding. Pamela gets some undignified treatment in the film but is at least in on the joke unlike most of the other participants. This is not the first time Anderson and Cohen have worked together. Last year, Anderson held a "commitment ceremony" between her two dogs which was gatecrashed by Cohen in a Borat segment for "Da Ali G. Show."

Other victims of Cohen’s pranks are not so happy about being duped. The Kazakh government are furious about the way their country is treated. Kazakhstan has bought airtime on US and international satellite channels to show ads presenting a more positive image of the country. Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman, Yerzhan Ashykbayev, said "We understand that Borat is a kind of satire, but it is just a pity that Mr Cohen chose Kazakhstan as the origin of his hero”. Kazakhstan has also invested $53 million in making the historical epic called Nomad to counter what it sees as the damage inflicted upon the nation's reputation by Borat.

Some of his American victims are also attempting to sue Cohen and his film company. Two college students failed in their attempt to gain an injunction against the film. The University of South Carolina students sought to prevent distribution of the film until scenes showing them making racist comments were deleted or altered. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joseph Biderman denied the request, noting an injunction can be issued only in "extraordinary" circumstances. But these extraordinary circumstances are proving invaluable publicity for the movie.

Initially the studio scaled down the number of scheduled venues for the film after distributors feared that American audiences wouldn’t get the joke. When it opened in late October, it was cut from more than half the 2,000 scheduled US cinemas. Despite this, the film was in the top 20 in its opening weekend taking in $26.4 million. Meanwhile the film was banned in Russia where censors cited the film's potential to offend religious and ethnic feelings. Kazakhstan itself has not banned the film.

Despite the obvious anti-Semitism of such jokes as the “running of the Jew”, Borat is going down extremely well in Israel. Cohen himself is Jewish and the language that he and the language Borat and his squat sidekick Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian) speak on their odyssey across the States is Hebrew. Cohen’s mother was born in Israel and grandmother still lives in Haifa. In high school he belonged to a Zionist Jewish youth group and he also spent a year working and on a kibbutz in northern Israel. As a result, the film is scattered with slang and inside jokes that are proving very popular with Israeli audiences. Israeli Oded Volovitz said, "It was a message that basically said, 'Although the movie is very anti (Jewish), I am still with you, I am still the same Mr Cohen. I'm just trying to send a message here and I hope you guys understand it”.


Yoosu said...

ah, i loved that movie, although it was very tasteless at times, it was extremely entertaining.

i think it is a bit pitiful how countries ban the movie. so narrow sighted.

i think it was banned in dubai thanks to some official who after watching about half of it, deemed it tasteless, rude, and not funny in any way whatsoever. annoying how people like these make the decision for everyone

Pamela Anderson said...

wuhooo! nice post here.. :)

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