Jak sie masz! Borat Sagdiyev, everyone’s favorite gray-suited, misogynistic, antisemitic, mustachioed, Kazakhi journalist is back! Well, maybe not everyone’s favorite. Once again, Sascha Baron Cohen manages to simultaneously entertain as well as offend in this new iteration of his perhaps most controversial alter ego. And yet, for all his comedic dare-devil antics, it is Maria Bakalova, the 24-year old Bulgarian actress who plays daughter Tutar, who ultimately steals the fakumentary/political satire/road movie/coming of age story/freak show.
It’s been 14 years since we last saw our fearless anti-hero attempt to bring glory to the great nation of Kazakhstan by making a documentary on American culture to benefit the…well, you know the rest. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we now learn that— despite the 2006 documentary being a resounding international success— he not only failed his compatriots by making them the subject of global ridicule, but is in fact responsible for his home country’s declining pubis and potassium exports. As a result, he is now serving a life-sentence in a gulag. That is until his government decides to give him a chance at redemption by sending him on a hail-mary mission: delivering the gift of a pornographic chimpanzee to America’s most notorious ladies man, vice-president Michael Pence.
Yep, that’s the initial premise. But hey, if you’re at all familiar with any of Baron Cohen’s work, it shouldn’t be all that surprising.
I must admit, I did experience some trepidation in the seconds while waiting for the AmazonPrime stream to load. There is no way that this film could live up to the original’s lighting-in-a-bottle, anarchic mayhem and subversive social commentary.
The opening sequences— while delivering just the right amount of laughs per minute— gave me the uneasy feeling that this could end up being somewhat of a rehash. Or maybe Baron Cohen would resort a bit too much to the surface level pop-culture appeal of this century’s most notorious cinematic clown: lots of neon green mankinis; awkward homo-erotic tension with conservative older men; “Mah wife!”, “Is naaaice!” and “Hai faive!“. In other words, tons of screen time for Borat Universe fan service; not so much for lifting a subtle mirror to society to reflect the ugliness festering underneath a veneer of fake propriety.
An Unlikely Duo
At around the twenty minute mark, it dawned on me that this is a somewhat different movie. Yes, there is plenty of the signature setting up and bamboozling of unwitting members of the public and high profile public figures that we have grown accustomed to since the early days of Ali G. Yes, there are also a couple of high-wire capers in which the risk of getting bruised, battered or even shot is palpable (though nothing as risqué as Borat’s and Azamat’s hotel streaking in the first film; or the octagon make-out scene at the end of Brüno).
Yet the core of the story lies within Borat’s relationship with his fifteen-year-old daughter, Tutar. The journey of both characters gradually overcoming their own prejudices and retrograde realities to form a familial bond is unexpectedly touching and believable. This is thanks in great part to Maria Bakalova’s gung-ho, uncompromising performance as Tutar. She— at first accepting of her society’s absurd and primitive views on gender roles— learns to question and challenge those views through her own experiences, ultimately forcing her own father to reassess his own system of values. As much as we may need to suspend our disbelief in order to go along with how their medieval sensibilities evolve into an almost anti-patriarchal stance, it does reflect— in a fast-forward way— how our society has evolved in the recent centuries.
Indeed, we have come a long way from accusing women of witchcraft if they just happen to “know stuff”. Nevertheless, the insidious idea that women should embody a more submissive, inferior role still seems prevalent in some pockets of American society.
It might at first seem jarring when Tutar’s emancipative epiphany in the film is partly inspired by a group of religious, Republican women during a conference on female empowerment. One would expect a more socially progressive setting; perhaps a pro-choice rally or an LGBTQ shindig.
The irony of the scene is nonetheless rather fitting. In the narrative world of the movie, the conservative women liberate Tutar by confirming that men do in fact lie and that it is perfectly normal for women to drive cars. But when her awakening becomes too openly sexual, it is suddenly no longer compatible with the social mores of a group of women whose political leader has publicly boasted about grabbing women by their genitalia without their consent. It is somewhat of an illusive russian-doll/Inception/chess-move of a scene. In the end, Bakalova’s Tutar has the potential to emerge as an unlikely feminist hero our zeitgeist might deserve.
The scene is later mirrored when Borat shacks up with two conspiracy theorists for a few days. The two heartwarmingly hospitable QAnon supporters inform the faux journalist that, while his country’s ideas on human birth are complete fabrications, their theories on the Clintons drinking baby blood are not all that far-fetched. It is an eyebrow-raising moment for both the fictional character and the viewer; not so much for the real people in the film, unfortunately.
Reality vs. Truth
Where the film has faced some well-founded criticism is in its muddling of narrative fiction, semi-staged situations and legitimate reactions of unsuspecting targets. One such moment— and perhaps the most controversial in the film— is the much talked about interview with former New York mayor and one of President Trump’s personal legal advisers, Rudy Giuliani. I don’t want to give too much away, but while there is some editing and possible playing around with sounds and visuals to elicit a specific reaction from the viewer, the fact that Giuliani allows himself to be caught in such a compromising context is baffling— to say least— regardless of how misled he claims to have been.
We should certainly grant more empathy to the unsuspecting members of the public whose participation in the film was based on deceit. This high-brow pranking, however, has been Baron Cohen’s M.O. since day one. It is part of how the apocryphal sausage gets made. Perhaps the most indefensible instance of such a hoax has been the portrayal of a Bethlehem grocer and non-violent political activist as a terrorist in 2009’s Brüno; one of the few known cases where a settlement was reached in court. Most defamation suits, however, get thrown out. In some cases, Baron Cohen has attempted to compensate those who felt exploited, as long as they are not guilty of willingly expressing the views that the British filmmaker is attempting to expose, i.e. sexism, xenophobia, classism, etc.
A Moviefilm and a Funhouse
I fail to remember the last time a movie was so self-aware while being deeply embedded in our current socio-political moment: from the über-meta-scenes where Borat realizes he’s now far too recognizable in the “US and A” and has to resort to multiple disguises to move around in public (a disguise [within] a disguise), to finding a way to work the pandemic into the central storyline of the film and remind us of the urgency to take political action on the brink of (what could have been) an (possibly disastrous) election. Some might understandably see this as blatant propaganda. After all, most of the scenes are indeed staged to varying degrees and there is a message; quite a blunt one, in fact, right at the end of the film. Still, the threat of misinformation and its consequences the movie is trying to warn us about is very real. So, it is propaganda, in as much as anti-propaganda is also propaganda.
You might find his methods unfair, or at the very least, uncouth; and yes, the novelty and the thrill of the first one has somewhat faded. But even if this second Borat offering is too much of a pseudo-realist hodgepodge— the goal is still clear. It reminds us time and time again— as enlightened as we may believe ourselves to be— that there are still people living next door to us who espouse dangerous views that belong in a different millenium.
When confronted with extreme religious beliefs, QAnon style conspiracy theories or right/left-wing antisemitism (three categories that would incidentally form a very interesting Venn diagram), a common mantra of your average mild-mannered, well-educated, open-minded member of society tends to be: “Well, no one really believes that kind of stuff!” The problem is, far too many do. Some of them end up unwittingly sitting across a cunning clown with a camera.
Perhaps there’s no need to lift a subtle mirror to reality if the surface of propriety is cracked and bigotry runs amok. What we need is a clarion call peppered with both dick and vagina jokes.