In the shadow of Borat.

Author:Torosyan, Gayane
 
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Kazakhstan has become an international punch line thanks to Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Gregorian, 2007). But the Kazakhs "are not willing to let the joke be on them." The tabloid New York Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education report that President Nursultan Nazarbayev's relatives are buying multi-million-dollar apartments in New York City, getting into Ivy League schools, and suing American companies for underestimating their intellectual worth (Farrell, 2007). Aside from author Sacha Baron Cohen, the only people who seem to "make benefit" from this sort of "cultural learnings" are the former Soviet "oligarchs," or tycoons, who harvest free publicity at the expense of the distorted images of their exploited countrymen (Lesova, 2006). Cohen's mocumentary has been so widely publicized that the name "Borat" has come close to being perceived as a common noun. Because of this popularity, there is no question about the power of the film's impact on audiences. Understanding the nature of that impact is the topic of this article.

Ideological criticism is used as a method of rhetorical analysis of Borat, with postmodernism as a theoretical framework that Foss (1996) recommends for its ability to explain the lack of unifying discourse and the fragmented nature of the context of this media text. Postmodern theory informs this study through the notion that contemporary culture has transformed radically by the domination of the media and technology that bring about new forms of communication and representation (Foss, 1996, p.293.). Fragmentation of individuals and communities, a consumer lifestyle, and a sense of alienation are the underlying canvas through which audiences perceive and process the message of the film. The hypothesis is that through his mockumentary, Cohen tackles a number of problems including racism, sexism, superstition, and poverty that truly exist in the countries of the former Socialist Bloc and worldwide, but because of its inaccuracy and factual frivolity, the film misses the point and remains overly superficial, vulgar and erroneous even for the genre of satire.

Preliminary Focus Group Analysis

Although the character of Borat Sagdiyev, a fictional Kazakhs television reporter commissioned to file features for his home network on "typical British life" emerged on Channel 4 Television in Great Britain in 1998 (Howell, 2006), the project materialized as a full-length film only a few years later. Directed by Larry Charles and distributed by 20'h Century Fox, the film Borat: CulturalLearnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan premiered at the 2006 Toronto International Film festival (Reuters Movie News, 2006). The technique used in the film is similar to Ali G's: a series of spoof interviews with unsuspecting individuals who were "unaware that the whole thing had been set up and that it was they who were the real source of the comedy. The humor arose from the innocent confronting the expert and ending up in glorious and mutual incomprehension" (Howell, 2006, p.157).

The wide release of Borat on video happened at a convenient time during the Fall 2006 academic semester when Mass Communication students at the State University of New York College at Oneonta were viewing excerpts from various motion pictures as part of their learning about screenwriting and on-air use of language. Aside from a few laughs, the film did not trigger much reaction from the group of 40-odd students, let alone discussion or debate of any significance. The students said it seemed to lack a point, but even if it had one, cultural confusion and vulgarity prevented them from understanding it.

In September 2007, a series of focus group sessions were conducted with three groups of students at the same school, the average number of participants in each session was 15, and some of them also selected Borat as their topic of discussion in a short essay assignment. Focus group discussions and written responses show that while accepting the genre of the movie as satire, most students agree that it actually enforces racial and ethnic stereotypes such as "middle easterners have a hard time adjusting in a Western society because they are not used to developed technology," "women in countries like Kazakhstan are treated poorly," while in America women "have it really good," and "men treat women as their property in those countries."

The majority of students stated that the film did not teach them anything about the former Soviet Union, but some of them ended up extrapolating some of its satirical claims over their perceived image of that part of the world.

To a certain limit, my views of the former Soviet Union have changed. The quality of life was a lot more of a third world situation than I imagined. Women in Kazakhstan have very few rights and are treated more like animals than humans. Ethnic relations were rather disturbing and hateful. The comedy had a fine line drawn between humorous and offensive. The economy of Kazakhstan was a very poor one. I think that Kazakhstani people are primarily Muslim due to the fact of the hatred towards Jewish people. Some students expressed more skeptical views, saying that the former Soviet Union was portrayed in an "over-the-top, exaggerated, mocking fashion."

I think Borat was intended to lampoon the culture and perspective of Americans. The way Kazakhstan was depicted was intended to mimic the idea some Americans have when they think of a relatively unknown Eurasian country. Therefore...

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