The Cultural Learnings of Sacha Baron Cohen
The first time I heard a German voice perfectly imitate Sacha Baron Cohen’s character Borat in exquisitely butchered Deutsch I was astounded. Later I realized that “unspecified Eastern European accent with bad grammar” isn’t particularly tough to emulate; my twin brother also does a bang-up job. The fact that Baron Cohen makes no pretensions to linguistic authenticity on TV or in his film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for make Benefit Glorious Nation Kazakhstan, makes it even easier. For example, Borat’s frequently intoned “Dzienkuje” means “thank you” in Polish, not Kazakh, and “jagshamesh” appears to be an invention. In much of the film, Azamat, Borat’s producer, speaks to him in Russian, and Baron Cohen answers in Hebrew smothered with a Slavic accent, frequently uttering sentences that have nothing to do with the English subtitles. In the scene about Borat’s aspirations to marry Pamela, Baron Cohen discusses making omelets with her. (The official languages of Kazakhstan, by the way, are Kazakh and Russian.)
The only rule, then, is that Borat sound authentically dumb to Western viewers, who then delight in his cultural fumbling. This delight is big in Germany right now, where Borat: CLOAFMBGNK is generating equal buzz as in the US. Zitty, one of Berlin’s big biweekly cultural rags, pronounced the film “enormously fun” although best seen in the original broken English. (After having lived in Germany for a total of eight months I don’t know any “knock-knock”-style punchline-dependent jokes; the humor in the language seems to be much more subtle, buried in droll asides or sarcasm. So maybe the obviousness of mangling a language just doesn’t sound as funny in German. Zitty Review: http://kino.zitty.de/1065/kino-rezension.html)
There are nay-sayers, of course; one reviewer dubbed it “Bowling For Pamela” for its Bowling for Columbine-like (Michael Moore, 2002) combination of semi-manipulated documentary style and exposure of embarrassing aspects of American culture but denounced it as a disappointing grouping of stock clichés. (Review by Martin Schwickert for Der Tagesspiegel, http://www.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/archiv/01.11.2006/2868822.asp)
And let’s not forget the Kazakh response, which is to deny the film’s veracity and express a mixture of fury and dismay. The best part about this response, however, is the way in which it subtly confirms the Grand Canyon-sized gap in cultural understanding Baron Cohen addresses, and perhaps even some stereotypes. The Kazakh ambassador to the United States dismissed the series as something only funny to “Americans who like to sit and drink beer and watch TV.” Hey, he just left out the nuns and the AA members! A New York Post article from Nov. 6 features an interview with a recently arrived Kazakh twenty-something who said he found the film funny but didn’t understand all the homosexual jokes per se, explaining “A gay dude came to my town once and turned up two weeks later floating in a pond.” And please take note: the movie is banned in Kazakhstan and the Kazakh foreign minister, Kasymzhomart Tokayev, has not seen it, despite his public condemnations.
However, all this attention might be good for Kazakhstan; more people (at least stereotypically clueless Americans) have the country on their cultural radar, for the time being, and are interested in hearing what its representatives have to say. Kazakhstan should use this opportunity wisely rather than spend too much time focusing on the work of a satirist; after all, isn’t it obvious that while Borat is fictional, the prejudiced Americans in the film are real? Who is really getting made fun of here?
No, rather than get riled up, Kazakhstan has a chance to use world attention. Of course, as an ignorant American, I have no good suggestions; the Kazakh government ought to know best what’s worth bringing to the spotlight. Now, all this deep thinking about cultural mud-slinging hurt my brain. I need to go have a beer in front of the television.