Charles Petzold

The “Borat” Conundrum

November 11, 2006
Roscoe, NY

Imagine that you are the proprietor of a small store. A man enters and begins asking questions. From his accent and fractured English, you assume he's a visitor from a foreign land. You are hospitable and courteous to this man, and attempt to make him feel at ease. You answer his questions with patience and tolerance.

At some point, the conversation takes an awkward turn. The visitor to your shop says something blatantly sexist or anti-Semitic. Perhaps he insults your family, or breaks something in your store. If at first you don't react, the offensive behavior escalates. At what point does your tolerance break down, either deliberately or inadvertently?

Oh, did I forget to mention that you're on camera during this entire encounter, and that you have already signed a release form under the impression that your visitor is a journalist from Kazakhstan making a documentary about America?

Congratulations. You have now become part of the cast of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, and it is likely that whatever your reaction to Borat was, it was wrong, and hence millions of people will be laughing at your stupidity in movie theaters across America and around the world.

Did you react with hostility towards Borat? Then you are a xenophobic American. Did you continue to be courteous while Borat became intolerably anti-Semitic? Then you are complicit in his anti-Semitism. Did you simply say "I've had enough" and walk off camera? Then you are a humorless prig.

As everyone knows by now, Borat is one of the three major personae of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. In the guise of Ali G, Mr. Cohen tests how people react to someone who's very, very stupid. As Brüno, Mr. Cohen tests how people react to someone who's very, very gay. As Borat, he tests how people react to a foreigner who is ignorant of Western customs and has a medieval view of Jews and women.

WARNING: Plot spoilers ahead.

For the most part, Borat shows us Americans who are unbelievably patient and polite with this boorish man. The woman who explains to Borat how to use an American toilet, for example, should receive some kind of award for her skill in foreign relations. And yet, when transferred to the big screen the whole scene is played for laughs.

Occasionally, the tension that Mr. Cohen creates between tolerance and complicity pays off, and Borat gets someone on camera who reveals some ugliness of his own, such as the rodeo manager who agrees with Borat that gays should be "strung up," or the drunken frat boys who use some sexist language (gosh, that's unusual). Perhaps the most shocking scene is the man behind the counter at the gun shop who doesn't blink an eye when Borat inquires about the best gun to kill Jews. And yet, even in this scene, I couldn't help wondering how much the guy was just playing along knowing full well he wasn't going to actually sell a gun to a tourist.

If Mr. Cohen's intent is to explore people's reactions in intolerable situations, then it makes no sense for this movie to have scenes of Borat by himself, or with his "producer." And yet, Mr. Cohen has obviously become so enamored of his fictional creation that the movie really becomes about Borat rather than his American victims.

Ultimately, then, Borat is a comedy where we laugh at a primitive man from an Eastern European country that we know nothing about. This movie is one big ethnic joke, and Sacha Baron Cohen is actually testing us, the audience. Do we laugh at Borat? Then we accept this gross and dishonest caricature. Do we reject the stereotype? But he's a fictional character! Where's your sense of humor?

Obviously Borat might be much funnier if you resist analyzing it.