(courtesy of Hamid Sardar)
The Borat movie is starting to generate backlash, predictably around the theme of racism is not funny – Rootless Cosmopolitan , Jews San Frontiere, (a play on a classic Peter Gabriel song I’d have to venture), a Reuters report and the Jewish Chronicle. Before I saw the film, I was concerned that its inevitable success could be a double-edged sword, since the biting satire could be misunderstood or misinterpreted to justify prejudice. Plus, I can see some merit in the argument that Borat could somehow legitimize anti-semitism given that his far less prominent alter ego Sasha Baron Cohen is Jewish. Having seen the movie, I couldn’t disagree more. Ali G started out with easy targets like out-of-touch British politicians and civil servants, and Borat has gradually expanded the scope of his ridicule to the fundamental prejudices that persist despite our best efforts to pretend they’ve faded away. By exposing anti-semitism or other forms of racism, Borat is not legitimizing it.
Prejudice is in part the consequence of unfamiliarity, and is amplified by unexamined ‘truths’ – like those most Americans hold about Islam. Like one of the hapless veteran feminists Borat tears through early on in the film, at times our best argument against prejudice is that it’s ‘wrong’ – an indirect admission that we can’t advance beyond the first principles of the liberal canon. By making prejudice and hypocrisy funny, Borat exposes the flimsy underpinnings of some of our more conscious prejudices and strips away the thin layers that conceal the latent ones nestled deeper in our minds.
I am sure that the ‘Running of the Jew’ clip in the movie (presumably staged in some sleepy Castillian village) will draw more fire as the movie gathers more momentum. This is unfair since the running commentary is Hebrew, and delivered in classical Israeli broadcaster style. I believe that Borat’s sidekick Azamat speaks Armenian, but Borat speaks Hebrew throughout, and like a real Israeli I might add. I’ll concede that this inside joke will be too obtuse for most people who see the film, and many will miss its subversive cues. But a clip later in the movie when Borat visits a bed-and-breakfast run by an genial old Jewish couple does make the film’s orientation clearer in racism really being the punchline. Borat and Azamat suspect that a marble rye sandwich proffered by the couple — because God forbid they should go hungry – is an attempt to poison them, and then believe that the couple have shifted shape to insects who can only be mollified by throwing cash at them. This is about unsubtle as possible about the irrational fears that underlie racism.
The Jewish couple clip is bookended by Borat’s latenight visit to some of Atlanta’s harder neighborhoods where he’s asked what music he listens to (Korki Butchiek of course!) and an extended drinking session with a group of University of South Carolina frat boys who express remorse at the passing of slavery and swear that ‘minorities’ have all the power while they sit in an expensive RV with more than ample supplies of beer. And as far as the negative perception of Kazakhstan, how many people in the US knew that Kazakhstan even existed before Borat?
Another hint of Borat’s subversiveness is the soundtrack. For every disparaging remark about Gypsies, there’s a track by an amazing Rom musician starting with Esma Redzepova, the Macedonian ‘Queen of the Gypises’.