Films Review | Jan 05,2019
Borat Sagdiyev - the Kazakh who stole our hearts with his unfathomable levels of anti-Semitism, sexism and racism - is back. And as our current state of politics would have it, his experiences are ever more crude and cruel. Some jokes do not even sound fun anymore. It is an indication that we are staring into the abyss, but there is no longer enough optimism left for us to be humorous about it.
Sacha Baron Cohen does not care. He wants us to gaze at the poor state of our being, at the absurdity that we have willingly allowed to pervade our political and social norms. Of course, he and the group of scriptwriters he assembles reserve their biting commentary for the purported leader of the free world, the United States.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm begins self-referentially. The first outing of Borat 14 years ago had led to the negative stereotyping of Kazakhstan, which did not go unnoticed by the government there. Borat is subjected to public humiliation – including a very creative use of the arcade hammer game – and sentenced to life in a forced labour camp.
But motherland calls upon Borat’s services once again. This time it is to present a gift, the country’s Culture Minister, which is a monkey called Johnny, to President Donald Trump so that Kazakhstan can be accepted into the club of world authoritarians. The real reason though, which is revealed in the third act in one of the cleverest plot twists in recent times, is much grander in ambition.
Borat heads to the United States once again. There is only one problem. His daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova), has somehow sneaked inside the crate transporting Johnny, and the monkey has ended up “eating himself.” Stuck with her, he devises another plan – to give his daughter as a “gift” to Mike Pence, vice president of the United States, curtesy of the great people of the state of Kazakhstan.
In their journey to reach first Pence, and then the contingency plan, Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the duo bond and explore the American body politic. They come across sugar dating Instagram influencers, QAnon believers, female conservative Republican groups and anti-abortion evangelists.
The film is a cruel portrayal of not just US political culture but the average American Joe. People are shown across the running time of the film casually being racist and sexist. Borat mentions throughout the film to Americans that he locks away his daughter in a cage at night, or that he plans to give her away for marriage to a much older person, to which they reply with absolute disinterest and go about their business. This is if they do not make a derogatory comment of their own.
But not everyone is terrible in the movie. It is curious that the majority of White people are portrayed as prejudiced and disengaged, while minorities are often shown to be caring and sensitive. One of these is an African-American professional babysitter that Borat hires for his daughter, who goes to great lengths to understand her and pleads with her to reconsider the cultural prejudices she grew up with. Another is a couple of Jewish women Borat meets in a synagogue who are warm and welcoming despite the shocking stereotypical opinions he throws their way.
Clearly, the film’s subject matter is the US far-right, not necessarily the far-left. But reading between the lines, Borat also has something up its sleeves for the post-modernist infatuated Left.
One of the most unexpected servings of the movie is the father-daughter side story, which is all the more refined by Bakalova’s raw performance as Tutar. Throughout the film, their relationship develops, outside of the caricatured Kazak tradition, into a more liberal one where Tutar is empowered as a woman.
What is the post-modernist Left to make of this? Is Borat to be praised for his personal growth? If the answer is no, and that he should have known better to begin with, then how can he be blamed for conforming to the socio-cultural structures he grew up within? Are we not all social constructs with limited, if any, agency?
How about the character arc of Tutar? Is it not the fact that she becomes empowered in the style of Western liberal feminism a case of cultural assimilation? Within an ideology where truth is a mere perspective, how can a culture even be judged outside of its own context?
Much of this will be analysed and debated in academic circles and lay groups. But one thing is for sure. While divisive – I found it to be hilarious, while many, especially in Ethiopia, will likely be offended by it – it is the talk of the town. It is satire, the best of its kind. It does not obsess over politicians as Saturday Night Live does but society. It is subversive and shocking. Like it or hate it, we are talking about it.
PUBLISHED ON Oct 31,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1070]
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