Borat in America

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

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Laughing at Anti-Semitism

Borat's anti-Semitism is funny because it's so comically ill-informed and because--for Americans and Jews--Kazakhstan is a relatively obscure country that lacks political and social resonance. If Borat were Iranian, his jibes about Jewish economic power might not be as funny. We laugh at Borat because we feel comfortable putting him in his place and because Cohen telegraphs to the audience that he is little more than a buffoon. We laugh at Borat because he is an anti-Semite, not in spite of it.

Nervous nellies, both Jewish and not, will likely find cause for concern in Borat, worrying that the film will inspire a newfound light-heartedness about anti-Semitism. They will raise the specter of Iranian nuclear ambition, of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hideous aspersions about the Holocaust, of Hezbollah's brazen attacks on Israel. And all of these are cause for deep concern. But they are not relevant to Borat, which renders anti-Semitism the province of the stupid and the backward.

For Borat, anti-Semitism is what grows in the Kazakh mud, remaining mostly unsuitable to American soil. It is the product of a lack of open discussion, of corruption, and of incompetent governments. Jews serve as an all-purpose scapegoat, a convenient explanation for all the world's ills. Ahmadinejad might laugh at this film for different reasons than most Jews would, but he would quickly grasp that Borat is not much of a calling card for the anti-Semitic cause. There are many anti-Semites in the world to concern ourselves with, but Borat is not one of them.

Indeed, if we felt like Borat knew anything about Jews, expressing informed hatred rather than clueless cultural stereotyping or had any power regarding world affairs, it would be inordinately difficult to laugh at him. After all, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed made headlines a few years back for making equally problematic anti-Semitic statements at a public forum, and just months before the release of Borat, Mel Gibson guaranteed his own infamy by drunkenly asserting that "Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world." The difference between Mohamed, Gibson, and Borat, bluntly put, is that Mohamed and Gibson are culturally and politically significant individuals, and Borat is a hapless, impoverished drifter with a less than iron-clad grasp of television etiquette.

The other difference, of course, is that Borat is a practical joke, an absurd emanation from the brain of a British Jew. Nonetheless, the film asks us to juggle two equal and opposing notions--that Borat is a genuine Kazakh journalist and reflective of the values of certain anti-Semites (if not of his ostensible countrymen, as Kazakh government spokesmen would have it), and that Borat is merely a comic inversion of serious anti-Semites like Gibson and Mohamed

A Hollywood Ending

As with any endeavor of this type, there is always the danger of All in the Family syndrome setting in--the possibility that the film's biggest fans will be those who get the joke least, celebrating Borat for the very qualities the movie mercilessly mocks. Even taking this into account, Borat, directed by Larry Charles and written by Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, and Dan Mazer, is one of the best American satires to emerge in many years.

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Saul Austerlitz

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