by Joshua Foust on 9/14/2006 · 9 comments

When Sacha Baron Cohen debuted his film “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” at the Toronto Film Festival, he arrived on a wagon pulled by four peasant women. Then, so the story goes, the audience’s riotous laughter was interrupted only when the projector gave out a mere 20 minutes into the film. He then used the incident to play up his country.

You have to love Borat. Through this character, Cohen not only has a bullet-proof way of openly mocking people to their face, he can use our slavish devotion to multiculturalism to get his victims agreeing with shocking racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and many other isms. It is always a mystery whether people are agreeing because he is a “foreigner” or because they really think it, but watching his show, which is a long series of hilariously embarrassing social trainwrecks, is always entertaining.

The Kazakh government, naturally, doesn’t see things this way. As was reported in this space, Borat’s .kz domain was suspended, and the government was threatening a lawsuit (prompting a brilliant response: “I have no connection to this Jew”). Several officials in the Kazakh government have loudly protested the character, especially after his performance at the MTV Europe Awards, when he accused Madonna of being a transvestite (among other things).

Naturally this warrants Presidents Bush and Nazarbayev holding a summit. Let’s repeat: Kazakhstan’s government is so wrung out of shape over the actions of a British comedian with an HBO show most people have never heard of, that they’re arranging an official diplomatic tour fo the U.S. to respond. Most Americans’ first glimpse of Cohen was probably his gay French F1 driver character in Talledega Nights, not anything involving Kazakhstan or Borat—which really just plays in Cohen’s hands, giving him an increased visibility and probably more viewers of his films.

That this, of all things, was enough to prompt a meeting between the two Presidents is a touch depressing, given all the other things going on in the region. I mean, it is just a movie. You’d think they’d be happy Borat has actually raised Kazakhstan’s profile—most people are smart enough to realize his show is satire, and the country could capitalize off its newfound publicity by starting a tourism ad campaign. The PR offensive leading up to this movie, both from Cohen and Mr. Nazarbayev himself, will help the country in the long run.

Fancy that—an autocratic government with a poor sense of humor. Just for kicks, because you really can’t watch it enough, here is the Borat Trailer:

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Nick September 14, 2006 at 6:45 am

Both Borat and Ali G have been brilliant ways of exposing the stupidity and gullibility of the high and mighty. Doubtless there will be many who still contend that Borat is an insult to Kazakhs and to Kazakhstan and that it borders on racism – but the character is clearly so ludicrous that it couldn’t be anything other than satire

It’d be interesting to know why SBC chose a Kazakh as a vehicle for his comedy. I suspect Kazakhs might be thinking, ‘Why didn’t he choose an Uzbek?’

squid123 September 14, 2006 at 9:57 am

He was obviously trying to think of the most obscure country he could think of. (Although if he had chosen an obscure African country instead, he would doubtless be accused of racism by many more people.)
What this situation indicates is the Soviet mentality of the Kazakh government, which is humorless, used to dictating from above, and accustomed to getting its way. In Kazakhstan, if the president or a minister doesn’t like the way a journalist reports, they can immediately staunch the reporting through several heavy-handed means. In this case, they naively assumed they could get their way as well, by intimidating Cohen. In fact, it’s much more difficult for politicians in a democracy to suppress annoying or embarassing commentary, as we know. Plus, they have no leverage. The result makes the Kazakh government look even dumber, and they play right into Cohen’s hands.
I hope Bush doesn’t join Nazarbaev in condemning the comedian, but I expect (and regret) that, given his own attitude toward the media, his lack of a sense of humor, and his reactions toward criticism in general (and desire to cozy up to Nazarbaev), Bush will pander, taking the side of extreme multiculturalism which he’s been known to do on occasion (“women of cover”) and indulge Nazarbaev’s authoritarian tendencies.

Brian September 14, 2006 at 12:26 pm

I’m just mad because he stole my swim suit:

Nathan September 14, 2006 at 9:06 pm

I’m only on my third day here in Almaty, but it’s amazing how much Borat has come up already. I’ve even met a Kazakh who thinks he’s hilarious.

Thanks for this and all the other posts, Josh!

uzbek September 14, 2006 at 10:55 pm

hello, do u know where i can mit wiht mr.Borat? Is he stil in US and A? I wud like to discuss with him a new movie about Uzbekistan policies.
Thank you

uzbek September 14, 2006 at 10:58 pm

Borat himself commented on the infamous Toronto Film Festival projector,

“It was brand-new machine brought over special from Kazakhstan for this event. We do not know who fault it was—the blacksmith who build this projectors blame the candlemaker for use poor-quality wax in the lantern, and the candlemaker blame the boy who was pedaling it for go too fast and blow out the flame. They will all be execute and then tried in a court of law for this crime”

Narcogen September 15, 2006 at 1:09 am

Certainly Kazakhstan would have been better off not responding. They are playing into Cohen’s act by doing so.

On the other hand, I don’t agree that Kazakhstan should be grateful for raising their profile. I don’t think it really has done so, and if they had acted more cleverly by not responding, it would not have.

I’m not sure you can call Cohen’s act satire. By definition you can’t satirize something no one knows about. Just about everyone back home I know only has two sources of information about Kazakhstan: myself and Borat. And recently, the latter has eclipsed the former. Answering the simplest of questions devolves into the same kind of apologist agenda the government is pursuing.

If what Cohen was trying to do was satirize the idea of a backwards country, would it not have made sense to simply invent one? If he means to satirize Kazakhstan in particular, why not be more accurate?

Of course, something tells me that if he were to do that, the government would be no happier.

Nathan, I’m sure you’re really busy while you’re, but drop me an email if you have some free time, would love to meet over a beer somewhere in Almaty.

Disha September 15, 2006 at 3:45 pm

BTW, the store that Borat will be a topic of the summit is a plant by Borat’s pr people.
But of course, sophisticated folks who know their humour and satire promptly recognized that fact. Right? Right???

Dan September 15, 2006 at 8:47 pm

Thanks for keeping us well briefed on the Borat happenings. I would like to point out that, while N. Nazarbayev’s trip to the US might be timed to coincide with the opening the Borat movie there, it isn’t the main reason Nazerbayev is coming to the US, nor will it be on the to of his agenda. It’s economic and political issues that will top the Kazakhstani president’s list. As is usually the case, it’s da money da power that are most important, with public diplomacy relegated to a lower priority. A brief, but lucid analysis of some of the key issues for the meetings between Bush and NN can be found on a 9/14 posting on the Roberts Report http://roberts-report.blogspot.com/ .

Nevertheless, as we’ve all read, the KZ government (or at least the humor challenged faction) is annoyed by the negative PR Borat is causing. It will be interesting to see if NN openly addresses this issue or lets the PR hounds do their job with the media educational blitz on the ‘real Kazakhstan.’

By the way, love the site guys, from the incisive roundup and commentary of regional news to the hilarious music videos, it a great place for CA expats to visit.

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