David Horovitz, THE JERUSALEM POST Dec. 1, 2006
I had heard that Sacha Baron Cohen - he of the grandmother in Haifa and the
youth education trips from the UK to the Holy Land - mixed in a fair amount of
Hebrew with his faux Kazakh in his box-office hit mockumentary Borat. I'd seen
a clip of the movie's opening few minutes on YouTube, where he promises a
one-armed neighbor (the genuinely disabled Nicu Tudorache) in his home Kazakh
village of Kuzcek (actually Glod in Romania), in Hebrew, that he'll return
from the United States with a new arm.
But I wasn't prepared for the fact that just about every "Kazakh" sentence
Borat Sagdiyev utters in the entire movie is Hebrew - near-accentless,
flawless, slang-filled modern Hebrew. My fellow Jerusalem audience members
loved every word of it, heaving hysterically at each idiomatic pearl.
I had heard that one or two of the scenes in the film were unspeakably
revolting, to the extent that nobody could quite understand how Baron Cohen
wasn't required to cut them in order to get his "R" certificate.
But I wasn't prepared for (sensitive readers might want to avert their eyes
for a few words) the big screen, in-your-face, gross and graphic wobbliness of
the naked intimate-wrestling encounter between Borat and his obese
producer/sidekick Azamat Bagatov. My fellow Jerusalem audience members
screamed and roared and squirmed and half-covered their eyes and finally, out
of breath, sighed with exaggerated relief when it was mercifully over.
I had heard that some of Borat was quite near the knuckle in exposing
anti-Jewish sentiment among ordinary Americans. I feared the worst because I
had seen an earlier Borat sketch, from Baron Cohen's TV shows, in which he
delights an Arizona country and western bar with a guitar and vocals rendition
of the alleged Kazakh standard "In my country there is problem," with its
catchy verses ("In my country there is problem/ and that problem is the Jew. /
They take everybody's money, / they never give it back to you.") and its
memorable singalong chorus ("Throw the Jew down the well / so my country can
be free. / You must grab him by his horns, / then we have a big party.").
But I wasn't prepared for the movie's early "running of the Jew" scene, in
which the Kuzcek villagers hold a traditional pageant involving
outsize-costumed Der Sturmer Jew performers and the gleeful killing of the
unhatched Jew egg. My fellow Jerusalem audience members didn't laugh too
uproariously at that one.
And like trusting pets who've been betrayed one time by an owner they had
thought was going to take loving care of them, these Jerusalem viewers went
very quiet when Borat and Azamat (played by Ken Davitian) check in to a
bed-and-breakfast establishment run by a kindly Jewish couple (the real-life
Mariam and Joseph Behar). What mischief, you could almost hear the audience
thinking, is Baron Cohen going to make at the expense of this harmless husband
and wife? Or, more accurately, what mischief is he going to make at the
expense of their religion - his religion, our religion?
In fact, apart from reinforcing the gentle truism about hospitable Jews
wanting their guests to eat heartily, Baron Cohen pokes little direct fun at
the Behars in what were apparently spontaneous conversations. He reserves the
negative stereotyping for scenes in their home when they are off camera - most
repugnantly when he and Azamat throw dollar bills at bugs that have supposedly
crawled under the door of their rented room. To Borat, steeped in his
purported Kazakh anti-Semitism since childhood, the bugs are apparently the
elderly couple transformed, their evil instinct distracted only with copious
quantities of the green stuff that, in his pernicious conception, is every
Jew's overwhelming motivation.
It is scenes like this in Borat - a huge commercial success in the US that had
also raked in $86 million internationally as of last weekend - that, to me,
highlight the film's troubling, even objectionable character. This is not,
heaven forbid, to place the kosher-keeping, generally Shabbat observant,
patently Jewishly concerned Baron Cohen anywhere near the humorless Mel Gibson
(architect of the flagellation epic The Passion of the Christ) on the spectrum
of movie-making damage to Jews. But, mixing movie genres again, he and we
would so greatly have benefited from just a little of the sensitivity shown by
the often similarly clownish Roberto Benigni in his rewarding and uplifting
death-camp comedy Life is Beautiful.
Baron Cohen has argued that a motivation for unleashing his appalling Kazakh
incarnation on an unsuspecting world was to expose anti-Semitism among members
of the general public interacting with him - in this movie's case the American
public, as filmed in the course of a cross-country road trip - and thus to
guard against the spread of the disease.
"Borat essentially works as a tool," Baron Cohen told Rolling Stone in a rare
and much-quoted out-of-character interview recently. "By himself being
anti-Semitic, he lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudice,
whether it's anti-Semitism or an acceptance of anti-Semitism."
Even indifference to anti-Semitism, the filmmaker rightly warned, enables it
to flourish. "I know it's not very funny being a comedian talking about the
Holocaust, but I think it's an interesting idea that not everyone in Germany
had to be a raving anti-Semite," he went on, invoking the historian Ian
Kershaw's analysis. "They just had to be apathetic."
But there are no members of the American public in that bed-and-breakfast
bedroom with Borat, Azamat and the bugs under the door, no unsuspecting
ordinary American folk garrulously venting anti-Jewish spleen for the rest of
us to gasp at in horror and resolve to marginalize. Just Baron Cohen, his
fellow actor Davitian, and his script, spewing comedy anti-Semitism all by
Is Baron Cohen, whether "running the Jew" in Kuzcek or here at the Behars'
B&B - where Borat splutters that he can hardly see the Jewish couple's
horns! - emphasizing his creation's foul and ignorant prejudices the better to
have his audiences ridicule and reject them? If so, the question is which
audiences does he have in mind? His film, after all, is playing far beyond the
shores of overwhelmingly tolerant America (of which more later).
Remember, too, that his lead character, though shown defecating and
masturbating publicly, is nonetheless rendered less than irredeemably
loathsome; we are even asked to sympathize with him at various lowpoints. Can
Baron Cohen be justly confident that his protagonist's dreadful caricaturing
will do more good than harm?
BARON COHEN is a comedian - bright, inventive and intrepid. Depending on how
much of the Borat footage was genuine and how much was scripted, he is also
brave. It requires real guts to take the microphone at center field and tell a
vast crowd at a Virginia rodeo that he supports their president's war of
terror, run with that "joke" to bloodcurdling extremes and top off the
performance by remaking the US national anthem as a paean of praise for
Kazakhstan and of derision for all other nations. It requires real guts of a
different kind to prance around before a global audience in that screaming
green excuse for a swimsuit.
But the jokester who would prevent another Holocaust wimped out, nonetheless.
Easy to play for fools an Evangelical Christian audience, swaying and clapping
wildly in the grip of religious passion. But think of the truly needed alarms
Baron Cohen might have set off for his audiences had he tried the same stunt
in a mosque.
Easy to tease out fragments of racist rhetoric and attitude in the essentially
decent American heartland. But there is far more fertile and treacherous
ground to warn from in his home continent, not to mention in our region. No
mass shift in tolerance for Jews looms threateningly in the United States of
America. Parts of Europe, though, where synagogues are attacked, cemeteries
vandalized and Jews are afraid to publicly display their religious
affiliation, are a very different story, let alone vicious-cartooning Egypt
and Holocaust-denying, would-be Israel-obliterating Iran. Indifference to the
disease of anti-Semitism in some of these parts has long been superseded by
the full-blown infection. Of course his movie would have been a lot less
What Borat demonstrates, in fact, is the very opposite of the danger its
creator would have us believe he wants to expose. However unwittingly, he has
brought to the screen an America of remarkable tolerance and grace and earnest
courtesy. Yes, there are the South Carolina college boys spitting nauseating
garbage, the homophobic rodeo cowboy, the automobile and gun vendors whose
politeness and desire for a sale outweigh any outrage at Borat's anti-gypsy
and anti-Jew offerings. America, too, has its bigots and numbskulls.
But that rodeo crowd quickly grew offended by Borat's bloodlust. As he
ratcheted up the ghoulish rabble-rousing, their enthusiasm rapidly waned -
despite the fact that here was the man with the mike, the mood-setter, the
ringleader clad in patriotic colors whose sentiments they were conditioned by
experience to appreciate, endorse and applaud.
The black street gang whom Borat apparently expected to goad into some or
other horrible act or utterance proved unthreatening, even likable.
The driving instructor whose prejudices he may have intended to reveal proved
insistently decent. The etiquette coach and Alabama plantation dinner hostess
proved adamantly helpful and understanding as he went to ever greater lengths
to cause offense and revulsion, before they ultimately succumbed and called in
the cops after he ordered in a "prostitute" (played by an actress). The
evangelicals met his fake pain with genuine sympathy, accepted him, sought his
salvation. The interaction between boorish Borat and average American in all
these (seemingly unscripted) scenes made for potent comedy. But the racism and
stereotyping were the manufactured creation of the mockumentary-maker; it did
not echo in his subjects.
ALONG WITH the rest of the Jerusalem audience, I laughed plenty during Borat.
But I worry about some of the global audiences for this film - about what they
may regard as funny, and why. And I understand why some in the Anglo-Jewish
community, as Baron Cohen has acknowledged, expressed concern that his earlier
"In my country there is problem... Throw the Jew down the well" skit would
encourage rather than highlight the dangers of anti-Semitism.
I wish Sasha Baron Cohen had worried, too, as to whether, in some parts of the
world, at some level of consciousness, some audience members will internalize
Borat's comic off-hand remarks and playacting about the Jews having planned
9/11, about those money-grubbing Jews, about this or that country having a
Jewish problem. I wish he'd asked himself whether he, more than the Americans
he filmed, risked reinforcing vicious and dangerous misconceptions. I wonder
whether he sufficiently appreciated that while he would be given more leeway
than a non-Jewish filmmaker, it might be wiser not to exploit it. Movies -
big, smash hit movies like this one, watched with rapt attention by millions
upon millions of people - have an incalculable impact.
Twenty years ago, when it could still be argued that potent anti-Semitism had
drastically ebbed if not passed since the Nazis, perhaps my sensitivities
would have been less acute. But not in today's world, with today's
intolerances and indoctrinations, its historical revisionism and warped values
and its ready resort to hate crimes of local and international impact.
Sacha Baron Cohen doesn't have to care. Again, he's a comedian, an
over-the-top, determinedly envelope-pushing comedian, and this is just a
movie - albeit "one of the greatest comedies of the last decade" in the
adulatory words of his Rolling Stone interviewer. But he claims to care a
great deal, claims this anti-Semitic, misogynistic and homophobic Borat
character he's filmed is the shock treatment for a troubling indifference to
those very traits.
But with real Middle East presidents with real bombs trying to persuade the
rest of the world that it really does have a Jewish problem and that it would
really be better off without a Jewish state, can Baron Cohen be certain that
Borat is helping the side he wants to help?
Here in Israel, watching Hebrew-speaking, Jew-hating Borat, I have problem.
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