If high-grossing movies can be made with just a video camera and a few guys in a van, the studios might find real competition from every fool with a digital camera and access to YouTube.... If you're under 35, you realize that everything is public now. Even if your racist rant were for a show in Kazakhstan, it would be on the Internet anyway. Never trust anyone under 35. Especially if he has a video camera. (Time Magazine, October 29, 2007)
When Sacha Baron Cohen's character Borat made his big screen debut in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan he was already part of a feedback loop for avid Web 2.0 netizens who had previously received a taste of this immature menace on the YouTube video sharing site. Cohen's first performances of the Borat character had been screened on TV on Da Ali G Show and were then recycled across media platforms, particularly Web 2.0 sites such as YouTube. Da, Ali G Show is a TV program that tests the lines between fact and fiction, a news show with a tongue in cheek edge that borrows from journalistic codes and conventions and comments on various socio-political events throughout the world. Congruent with other fictionalized first person narratives of YouTube producers such as lonelygirl 15, All G's Borat was just another make believe character in the new circuits of media circulation. Taking his product, or production, to the silver screen was the next innovation, a feature film length video clip that demonstrates the powerful nature of the new first person narratives of the Web 2.0. These narcissistic narratives have become the lingua franca of online video communication and Borat has trumped the denizens of YouTube by cashing in one such narrative on the silver screens. At once ribald comedy and vulnerable personal narrative, Borat the movie is emblematic of a set of forces at work in contemporary media, a mixture of Web 2.0 narcissistic narrative, the mockumentary style of documentary filmmaking, and the fictionalized veritas of reality TV. In this era of the quickcam v-idiot, where producing and distributing media representations is possible for anyone with a camera, an editing suite and broad band capacity to upload to a Web 2.0 application, it is not surprising that quality will sometimes be sacrificed for sake of the unrehearsed, whimsical production. Many producers of media content in the Web 2.0 domains present that which is on their minds, unrefined, narrowly crafted productions that merit little attention. While the whimsical is the currency of content on domains such as YouTube, some amateur media makers have seized the moment to create productions worthy of attention. The interruption of the one-way flow of media, emblematic of the mass media of the previous century, has enabled some extraordinarily creative media messaging to occur. Enabled by an economy of viral, point-to-point, communication, where media messages flow on horizontal axes from producers to consumers, some YouTube producers have found mass audiences for the expression primarily of point of view narratives. The narcissistic forms of story telling that have emerged have also begun to affect the mass media forms of television and film. One of the "effects" of the new media is the documentary form of fictionalized cinema verite. (1) This new form relies on a hybrid of old style and new media production techniques and narrative conventions, where direct cinema (2) meets the webcam and becomes the instant pudding of contemporary media.
When director Larry Charles joined forces with Cohen to create Borat, they set out to explore the reality American culture with the intention of providing probing and humorous commentary, but without making any claims to scientific veracity. Charles and Cohen cobbled together a number of genres and techniques of media production to create a fictionalized mockumentary, a satirical film that was both a work of fiction and a documentary. Demonstrating the power of the feature film industry to emulate and extend the amateur productions of YouTube, Borat was a popular and economically viable hit release. Since its release in November 2006, the film has grossed over $260 million dollars worldwide, and has earned Cohen an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe. The questions Borat the movie raise for media criticism are multifold. To what extent is this feature length movie an extension of amateur videos on the Web 2.0? To what extent is Borat the film a new form of viral communication? Where is the line between fiction and documentary? Is a fictionalized mockumentary more revealing of truth than is a documentary based in realism? Where are the lines of truth and fiction in media storytelling today?
To begin to understand the Borat phenomenon, we need to first explore the space it occupies within the history of media. Over the last decade, many media texts have blurred the boundaries between reality and fiction, including reality TV, comedic newscasting, and viewer produced media. Reality TV shows (3) have become the surprising innovation in television programming, low budget fictionalized "reality" spectacles that have caught on in a big way with audiences looking for television content that addresses their lives in a raw, affective manner. Like Borat, these programs not only blur the fine line between reality and fiction, but also set out to use this tension as a means to draw in audiences schooled in media skepticism. Raised on television, contemporary audiences no longer care about the boundaries between reality and fiction, but seek narratives that raise questions of ethics and value in the hedonistic, secular contexts of a postmodern world. Alongside reality TV, we have also witnessed in the past decade a tremendous growth of irreverent journalistic programs like Da Ali G Show that used parody, jamming, remixing and comedy to report on the news. Television shows such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report in the U. S. and This Hour Has 22 Minutes in Canada probe the top news stories of the day in humorous and ironic fashions.
Programs such as these have satisfied jaded television audiences seeking an alternative from standard news programming that presents news within what is now a highly contested myth of objectivity and neutrality. Finally given a chance to talk back, audiences have embraced new media outlets such as YouTube that have created sites for them to play in the spaces between fact and...