Content warning: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm intentionally uses crass and offensive humour to explore and prod at American cultural tendencies. The film is not for everyone.
Like many other North Americans trying to make the best of the pandemic’s second wave, I sat down last week and watched Amazon Prime’s latest sensation: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. It’s a sequel to 2006’s Borat, which saw comedian Sacha Baron Cohen don the role of a fictitious Kazakh journalist in order to interview unsuspecting Americans for a ‘documentary’ on cultural relations. But what the movie actually explored was mid-2000s bigotry, with a hefty dollop of mayhem.
It was, as you can imagine, crass, problematic, enlightening and far from everyone’s cup of tea.
The sequel runs in much the same vein. The Borat character is brought back to make another documentary of American life, but this time he narrows his focus from the culture in general to the Republican party, especially with the leadup to the 2020 election. Other targets include Instagram influencers, COVID-19 dissidents, debutante balls, conspiracy theorists and, in an infamous scene, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.
The scenes bounce between political rallies, interviews and a vulgar father-and-daughter dance, and it all adds up to a convincing argument for the absurdity that’s become apparent in some parts of modern American political life. While the proceedings are edited for maximum (and often exaggerated) shock value, even skeptical viewers are still left with a sense that this is how far we’ve come. What’s on screen might actually be happening.
The Borat films have come under heavy fire too, it has to be said. The sheer amount of crude humour is a barrier for many who don’t like this kind of bodily or cringe humour. Then there’s how nearly all the interviewees were fooled into thinking they were working on an entirely different film. And the criticisms aimed at how Borat treats his ‘participants’ are disturbing and entirely valid.
There’s something else, though, that I couldn’t help thinking after the credits rolled: namely how much the proceedings prefer gotcha! moments to contextualization or empathy. How absurdities and extremities are projected onto an entire party membership and, in a way, to half of the American populace. Cohen is not nonpartisan – he’s afraid, as many others have claimed to be, of the damage Donald Trump may do to democratic institutions should he win tomorrow’s election. And his movie has the very functional goal of mobilizing the electorate against that victory. Nuance takes second place to activism.
Even if everything Baron Cohen exposes is accurate, I would still argue that it doesn’t go deep enough to address the underlying problems. He encourages people to vote by presenting a frightening picture of the people who could be empowered by a Trump win, and he does so by painting Trump supporters with a broad brush that encourages fear, or even hatred. What makes things even more complex is that people of faith are often uncritically lumped in with the hodgepodge of far-right imagery Baron Cohen conjures. Nowhere is present the excruciating choices many Christian Republican-voters have faced in the past number of years. And the movie, for all its points, comes up short when speaking about dialogue, analysis or understanding – this only furthers political polarization and does nothing to heal the wounds of a divided culture.
This made me think of an entirely different film: an actual documentary made by British filmmaker Deeyah Khan. In her White Right: Meeting The Enemy (sometimes available on Netflix or, for those in Canada, on TVO) she addresses the same ugly underside of American culture as Baron Cohen, but she instead decides to engage the white supremacists and alt-right leaders in conversation. And nowhere does she conflate right-leaning partisan politics with the very real neo-fascist movements plaguing the country.
The movie is harrowing. Khan visits neo-Nazis, observes Ku Klux Klan rallies, visits white supremacist training camps and attends the infamous Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, VA. Through it all she maintains connections with the movement’s leaders and followers and facilitates discussions where they lay out their thoughts on ethnic cleansing, white ethno-states and more. She becomes a presence in their lives and listens to stories of economic downturn, fear and depression. The fact that she does this as a woman of colour brings authority to her project, and many of her correspondents describe her as the first racialized ‘friend’ they have ever had. Some of them start rethinking their positions as a result.
The issues that Khan and Cohen examine are similar, but Khan does it in a way that throws light on why things have gotten this way. She makes space for people to tell their stories, and then she highlights their motivations, their psychological background and the different communities and histories involved. There’s something entirely like grace in the way she gets past their defenses and, for all the swastika tattoos on display, remains committed to their dignity as human beings.
Cohen, on the other hand, uses shock and exposure to promote his own agenda. It works, and it has proven resonant, but it has the effect of further entrenching people’s fear of the other. It’s this fear (he documents the far-right’s fear of a Biden win while inciting a fear of Republicans among the left) that incites Twitter wars or the formation of echo chambers or the slow disappearance of the common ground that helps us learn how to live together. It’s this polarization that pushes people into insular communities that make people, like Baron Cohen’s subjects, susceptible to fake news or problematic conspiracy theories. In effect, he is strengthening the dynamics that cause the exact problems he’s trying to expose.
These dynamics were studied by Vamik Volkan, a Cypriot psychiatrist and political analyst famous for his work on group identity and ethnic conflict. He describes, in a book called Bloodlines, how large social groups coalesce when they come under threat, and the group identities that emerge can interfere in our ability to see the other side as welcoming or even human.
In the past few years, studies have been published that indicate how political affiliation may in fact be a more salient division in North America than race, religion, gender or class, and so emerging patterns of dehumanization may be seen more prominently along party lines than among more traditional markers of discrimination. Which means that satire, while effective in the short term (and funny for those who like this sort of thing), may end up playing into these dynamics and further entrenching problematic cultural divides. We laugh at the problem instead of figuring out what to do about it, which is as much a crisis of dignity as it is of cultural politics.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t watch the film, or that extreme political satire is necessarily unhelpful or dangerous. I don’t want to set up a dichotomy of Borat lovers and haters – part of the issue, here, is that we need to find creative ways to engage across divides. Instead what I’d suggest is promoting other material to complement the movie, and Deeyah Khan’s work is an ideal match. Instead of setting these films up as competitors, as we see on Twitter or in the culture at large, maybe the best results (and some of the best hope for our political and cultural future) lies in lining them up beside each other. Just close enough for a good conversation.
The most effective parts of Cohen’s Borat films, for me at least, are in fact very close to Khan’s sensibilities. When he spends five days in the woods with conspiracy theorists, he shows them in quirky and, at times, tender light. When babysitter Jenise Jones visibly sits on her rage, she still treats Borat and his daughter with dignity even when she believes they’re involved in an entirely problematic scheme.
People, and the connections between them, do rise to the surface within Borat’s potpourri of obscenity and farce. And it’s these connections that will help us address the wounds dividing our common culture. Perhaps Borat will succeed most if, after we’re done laughing (or cringing), we ask who these people are, why they believe what they do and whether they’re different from us at all.
An abridged version of this article appeared in Convivium Magazine.
Josh Nadeau is based in Russia & Canada. When not writing or plotting some project or another, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain a sense of awe.