Wednesday, November 01, 2006
Why I am not going to go see Borat
I hate to be a killjoy, but....
I'm sure, as per the conclusion of the New York Times article, that Borat will be very funny, and very successful. All criticisms of it as being anti-Semitic can be pushed aside by saying, look, this is satire, or black comedy, and further, Sacha Baron Cohen is Jewish and we have a long and noble tradition of allowing people to poke fun at their own racial/ethnic/religious/national backgrounds. Sure.
My question is, why doesn't anyone take the Kazakhstani's complaints seriously?
From the afore-linked NY Times article:
Still, “I can almost guarantee you that not everyone will get the joke,” said Richard B. Jewell, a professor of film history at the University of Southern California. But he added: “In my opinion it’s a very healthy thing. Some of best films that have been made in the last 50 years have been black comedies.” He cited “Dr. Strangelove,” which poked fun at nuclear holocaust.
“What can be more serious?” he asked. “It makes people think about these things in ways they don’t when there are more straightforward, serious, sober films.”
Sure, let's do good black comedy and satire. YES. I wholeheartedly agree. But who's really being mocked in this movie? Jewish folk? Well, maybe, but see above re. mocking one's own. Who is being mocked here, and yet doesn't have a voice?
Kazakhstan. It's one of those random former Soviet republics that's still pretty vague to most of us in the West. It's a miscellanous country, one that you might name off the top of your head while making a joke about random countries (sort of like Albania was for Wag the Dog, before the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo became famous). To our Western pop culture ears, the place sounds a little silly. It's definitely Other to us.
Therefore, we can use it as the brunt of jokes.
Therefore, we can make random statements about Kazakhstani women, or Kazakhstani liquor, or what have you, and know that no one will correct us, or call us out, or anything, because really, doesn't Kazakhstan exist for us as some sort of mythical, joke-fodder place?
According to the CIA World Factbook, Kazakhstan is 47% Muslim and 44% Orthodox Christian. I'm sure these two groups love being the on-going butt of Sasha Baron Cohen's joke... and the ongoing butt of our jokes, as we repeat the funny Borat lines. Their resentment isn't anti-Semitic, or anti-West, it's simply them being quite simply sick of being made fun of, just for existing.
(Recall Triumph the Insult Dog and his visit to Quebec? It wasn't so much that it was wrong of him to poke fun at French Canadians, it's just that the way he was poking fun of them showed that he didn't actually know anything about them. Haha. So funny. That's why the in-joke is funny -- because it relies on being in the know. Just to say "hey, that thing that's strange to me... it's funny... just 'cause... and I'll just repeat it over and over again until YOU think it's funny too!" -- that's not black comedy, or satire. It's just lame.)
Again, from the CIA world factbook:
Native Kazakhs, a mix of Turkic and Mongol nomadic tribes who migrated into the region in the 13th century, were rarely united as a single nation. The area was conquered by Russia in the 18th century, and Kazakhstan became a Soviet Republic in 1936. During the 1950s and 1960s agricultural "Virgin Lands" program, Soviet citizens were encouraged to help cultivate Kazakhstan's northern pastures. This influx of immigrants (mostly Russians, but also some other deported nationalities) skewed the ethnic mixture and enabled non-Kazakhs to outnumber natives. Independence in 1991 caused many of these newcomers to emigrate. Current issues include: developing a cohesive national identity; expanding the development of the country's vast energy resources and exporting them to world markets; achieving a sustainable economic growth outside the oil, gas, and mining sectors; and strengthening relations with neighboring states and other foreign powers.
I just want to pull out a couple things -- First, this is a country for whom (sort of like Canada) developing a strong national identity (because of immigration of non-Kazakhs, because Kazakhs were never really united) is a key issue. I'm sure they love it that the first thing most young Westerners will think of when they think of Kazakhstan is Borat. Fantastic-o. (I mean, at least Canada had Dudley Do-Right back in the day. And at least Bob & Doug McKenzie knew something about Canada. Sasha Baron Cohen just seems to make shit up. See my bracket above, re. Triumph the Insult Dog). Secondly, this is a country trying to strengthen relations with neighboring states. In other words, a country trying to emerge on the world stage as something more than a Random Former Soviet Republic. Even though I'm sure diplomats can tell fact from fiction (well... reasonably sure...), Borat is basically an extended attack ad, undermining Kazakhstan's developing world brand identity. (how's that for a mixed metaphor?)
I just want to conclude by saying that I'm not the world's biggest fan of Kazakhstan. Here's the Amnesty International index for Kazakhstan. Freedom of expression seems to be a problem in Kazakhstan. So, obviously it would be lame for me, in this light, to say that Borat should be banned in the West, just 'cause those freedom-of-expression-hating-Kazakhs dislike it. Freedom of expression is great. And important. Yes. I just think there's better ways to convince Kazakhstan of the importance of freedom of expression than making a movie that mocks it as a bunch of anti-Semites, and better ways of convincing the world that we need to have a serious public conversation about our attitudes toward religion, ethnicity, and political correctness, than by making a movie that makes everyone just a little bit stupider.
PS - translation: I think the movie's racist. (Ethnicist?) no matter how funny it might be.
Thanks to the online Lonely Planet guide to Kazakhstan for the images.
jane 7:52 PM [+]