Borat in America

Sacha Baron Cohen's satirical look at the United States--and (fake) Kazakh anti-Semitism.

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The British comic and cultural saboteur Sacha Baron Cohen first made his name in the U.S. as the host of HBO's Da Ali G Show, an American version of his acclaimed U.K. program. 

Cohen played a number of characters on Da Ali G Show, including the gay Austrian television host Bruno, hip-hop clown Ali G, and Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev. Borat's sketches usually revolved around absurdist interactions with clueless American heartlanders who believed Borat was filming a segment for Kazakh television. Under that guise, Borat/Cohen revealed misogyny, anti-Semitism, and assorted other forms of cultural stereotyping, and in turn, documented the absurdity, intellectual aridity, and closed-mindedness of a certain brand of American life.borat

From Kazakhstan to the Big Screen

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006), the full-length film spun out from Cohen's Borat sketches, intends to be equal-opportunity offensive. But as it turns out, the bulk of the film's humor is pointed in two directions: at Jews and at the homegrown American yahoos who agree with Borat's cockamamie bigotry.    

At the beginning of the film, Borat Sagdiyev informs us that Kazakhstan is beset by three types of problems: the economic, the social, and the Jew. But before explaining these issues in greater detail, Borat gives his audience an impromptu tour of his hometown, Kusek. He introduces us to his portly, scowling wife, his sister--the #4 prostitute in all of Kazakhstan--and his rapist neighbor.

Borat's Kazakhstan is a friendly place where the annual festival is dubbed the Running of the Jew, an extravaganza where participants flee, running-of-the-bulls style, from enormous puppet Jews--the man with hooked nose and flowing side-curls, the woman wielding a challah and a meat cleaver. When the female Jew pauses to lay an egg, the local children rush in, urged on by Borat: "Go kids! Crush that Jew egg before it hatches!"

American Road Trip

And then it's on to America, where Borat and his producer Azamat (Ken Davitian) explore the strange byways of American life as they drive from New York to Los Angeles. They travel by car instead of plane, of course, just "in case the Jews repeat attacks of 9/11." For Borat, and his countrymen, Jews are little more than a collection of their stereotypes, existing more as an all-purpose bogeyman than flesh-and-blood individuals.

Needing a place to stay one night, Borat and Azamat unknowingly stumble into a bed-and-breakfast run by a middle-aged Jewish couple. The joke is immediately clear to the audience (the man wears a kipah and the walls are covered with nostalgic paintings of Eastern European Jews), but it takes the two anti-Semites a few minutes before they realize where they are. Borat appears to go catatonic with shock, and as fright music plays on the soundtrack, he dutifully attempts to swallow the undoubtedly poisoned sandwich supplied by his hosts before mercifully spitting it out into his handkerchief. Borat records himself Blair Witch-style cowering in his bed, gripping a cross and a fistful of dollars to ward off the vengeful Jews while telling the camera "I'm in the nest of Jews…you can barely see their horns."

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.