Borat Sagdiyev is a controversial fictional character created and played by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. He is one of three fictional television host/journalists made up by Cohen in his HBO television series, Da Ali G Show. Recently, 20th Century Fox released a movie staring Cohen as his character Borat titled Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Borat is a fictional Kazakhstan journalist who interviews real people who believe that Borat is an actual journalist and that they are being filmed for a Kazak television program. The character is portrayed as foreign, awkward, and eager to know about American ways. In his interactions with the individuals he is interviewing, he reveals racist, anti-Semite, and sexist views. His naive manner, which may resemble a stereotype of foreigners held in the Western world, ironically enables people to tolerate him. Cohen claims that the intention of his humor is to capture people's reactions to the foreign character's boorish and otherwise unacceptable behavior (Strauss, 2006). Borat and the situations he creates are intended to expose the interviewees' indifference to, at best, and blatant evidence of, at worst, prejudice and racism. The character has received worldwide attention and has sparked controversy since its beginnings.
Specifically, criticisms have been raised about the portrayal of the character and its effect on the image of the country and people of Kazakhstan (Mong, 2006). It has been argued that misinterpretations by the general Western public in the post 9/11 era create a stereotype for Kazakhstan, for which Kazakhstan has little power to defend (Idrissov, 2006a). It may also reinforce already existing ideas of 'otherness' and allow racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic content to be acceptable (Anti-Defamation League, 2006). The treatment of the subjects in the film is also ethically questionable, especially regarding the underprivileged residents of the Romanian village who were filmed as Kazakhstan villagers (Ionescu & Pancevski, 2006). Regardless of Cohen's intentions or assertions of a political agenda, one must question the actual social impact of the Borat character as it grew to become an international sensation. An analysis of the development of Cohen's characters and career reveals that although Cohen has political sensibilities, his agenda may not be primarily political in nature, and that access to major media outlets imposes a powerful influence that has negative social outcomes.
Sacha Baron Cohen and his Three Characters
Sacha Baron Cohen was born and raised in England and comes from a Jewish middle-class family. Growing up, Cohen attended a private school and in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine (Strauss, 2006), Cohen described how he has enjoyed Peter Sellers and Monty Python films since he was young. Educated at Oxford University, he completed a master's degree for which he wrote a thesis on the Jewish involvement in the American Civil Rights Movement. He has close ties with Israel since his grandmother currently lives there and he himself had lived on a kibbutz in Northern Israel for a year. He also speaks Hebrew fluently. When Cohen graduated from university he aspired to become an entertainer and gave himself five years to make it in show business.
His early career began in England in 1994. Channel 4, a public television broadcasting corporation in the United Kingdom, had an opening for the late night comedy show The Word and was looking for a replacement. This is when Cohen sent in a tape of a character 'Kristo Shqiptari' a fictional Albanian television reporter, one of the predecessors of the character 'Borat.' Kristo, who has the same accent, mustache, and quirks as Borat, did not make the part but Cohen succeeded in impressing the producer of Channel 4. In the meantime, another character created by Cohen, Ali G, became popular. Originally, as Cohen explained in the Rolling Stone interview, Ali G came into being after he and a friend learned that their bogus 'gangsta' rapper characters were convincing to normal people on the street as authentic. After appearing as Ali G on The Eleven O'Clock Show, a satirical comedy program on Channel 4, Da Ali G Show was aired on the same channel by the year 2000. Ali G's premise was to interview influential people with idiotic and ignorant questions. The irony in the situation is how people being interviewed would mostly go along with the ridiculous material. Originally named MC Jocelyn Cheadle-Hume, the producer of Channel 4, Harry Thompson, changed the wanna-be gangsta character's name to Ali G, an "ethnic" name, so that the people being interviewed would be less likely to challenge him in fear of being accused as a racist. Thompson was aware that people would behave with more tolerance to an ethnic minority in front of a television camera and so this aspect of Cohen's character was manipulated. An example of Ali G content would be in an interview with Pat Buchanan, an American politician, Ali G successfully got him to use the term BLT instead of WMD (mis-termed previously by Ali G himself) in a discussion about weapons of mass destruction.
Cohen's third character is Bruno, a flamboyant, gay Austrian fashion reporter who also convinces his interviewees that he is genuine. Often directed to people of the fashion world, Bruno would lead his interviewees to again expose prejudice and ignorance and to contradict themselves while participating in ridiculous conversations.
While Ali G was rising to fame, Cohen was working on another character named Alexi Krickler, a reporter from Moldova, who was strangely dressed and incapable of understanding British English expressions and culture. In an interview Cohen claims that Alexi Krickler, the forefather of Borat, was based on a quirky Russian man who Cohen met and was amused by on a vacation to a beach resort in Russia. A final version of this character is Borat.
Cohen's most recent upsurge in his comedic career is the filming of the movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Directed by Larry Charles (most known for his work on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm), and co-written by Cohen and Anthony Hines (also the writers for Da Ali G Show) this movie was an international hit. It was received with great attention in Western countries, while Russia banned the film and Kazakhstan's largest chain of cinemas will decidedly not be showing it.
An Examination of the Character Borat
From the history of the development of the character, Borat, it can be assumed that the character was intended to be of Eastern European background, which may have been presented by the British comedian to be seen as humorously backwards to a British audience. The character Kristo Shqiptari, from Albania, developed into Alexi Krickler from Moldova, and then finally Borat from Kazakhstan. All are characterized with dark puffy hair, a full moustache, and all speak with what is intended to be a thick Eastern European-resembling accent. His personality is well intentioned, but also naive, racist, sexist, and anti-Semitetic. The anti-Semitism resembles an older Eastern European stereotype that draws heavily on the history of Eastern Europe as a place of violence against Jews...