The Liberal Orientalism of Borat 2

The sequel to Sacha Baron Cohen’s Oscar-nominated comedy is one of the rare opportunities to see Kazakhstan, or working-class people on the screen. Unfortunately, agency and respect are off the menu, just like the last time.

4 years ago

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Katya Kazbek is the creator and editor-in-chief of Supamodu, a daily online magazine that explores independent film, art, music and books from around the world.

Watching “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” as we near the US election made me realize: this film is a parable for what Liberal Americans see as a good future. Republicans out of the way so that the liberal line of power can have the upper hand in imperialism and racism. And as the empire lies in shambles, I find it really telling that a liberal American comedy doesn’t see a better way to assert the country’s superiority than by making fun of Kazakhstan, a remote country vaguely familiar to most of the film’s viewers.

Of course, I also understand that the precedent with the first movie was set almost 15 years ago. But has there been any improvement since? This time around, the people posing as Kazakhs weren’t personally made fun of as much, so maybe there won’t be a new lawsuit (except for one from the Holocaust victim). But the quips at Kazakhstan, a beautiful country with a rich culture, only became more pointed.

As Carl Zha noted, a Kazakh Soviet soldier named Rakhimzhan Qoshqarbaev planted the flag on Reichstag alongside his Russian buddy while other Kazakh Soviet soldiers fought the Nazis to liberate the Jews. Also, Kazakhstan, as vast as it is, was where hundreds of thousands of Jewish people were evacuated to during WWII. In Borat's reality, though, the nation of Kazakhs are portrayed as anti-Semitic perpetrators of the Holocaust. Why?

There are quite a few countries in Europe that fit the description much better by way of anti-Semitism and Nazi collaboration. Of course, they couldn’t be the butt of Cohen’s jokes—racy humor isn’t the same when it’s not racist. Brits and Americans are also too involved in Nazi-collaboration for comfort, so there is a need to make sure the satire can’t give anyone any clues on the real state of affairs.

Xenophobia can’t thrive when people actually know how people of a different class, race, or ethnicity live: it has no alienation to feed on.

However, it’s wild that Cohen parades himself as a fighter against Holocaust denial by literally shifting the blame for the Holocaust from the countries that historically aligned with Nazis and/or sheltered them in the aftermath to a non-white country that had been colonized. It’s all very upsetting to me but not surprising: white Western people have been employing this Orientalist shtick since time immemorial. And they will keep at it to the deafening applause of the nice liberal public.

The mythos of contemporary political figures often hinge on “The Other” as well. Is Hillary even Hillary without the slaves of Libya? where would Elizabeth Warren be if she impersonate a citizen of the Cherokee nation? Everyone knows full well that if there were “run the American” events happening anywhere, it’s not MAGA hat-wearing people they locals would be chasing. Not even Trump, despite him being so memeable. It would be Obama, the Clintons, Bush. Cohen would never dare to show that, of course.

But back to “The Other.” As long as it’s the right kind of “The Other”—not the one you belong to, not the one that culture strives to shelter—we can always make fun of them because you don’t know anyone who cares personally. And that doesn’t mean that abusing while sheltering "The Other" also can’t happen: see the use of Black female characters in both films as “magical negroes”, the ubiquitous “mammy” stereotypes that have no place in films made in 2007 or 2020. Yet, here we are.

But nothing unsettles me more than the opportunity costs to the creation of “Borat 2”. Can you imagine how cool it would be if a well-equipped film crew went around the world and shed light on the material lives of people in underrepresented places? Say, Kazakhstan. I’m sure Kazakh workers wouldn’t mind sharing a racy joke or two alongside their humble stories.

But that wouldn’t be edgy humor, would it? It would be wholesome. It would be labeled unwatchable for the masses because they can’t ever be forced to face their reality. They need to be kept on the IV drip of the unattainable and pumped full of high fructose corn syrup.

Part of the reason I’m a Marxist-Leninist is culture. Everyone in the West is constantly ridiculing Soviet art and how the media used ordinary people to further the Soviet political agenda. But in Soviet Russia, you actually saw milkmaids and tractor drivers on TV. They were presented as important people.

Real people in actual cafe in Almaty, Kazakhstan, 2020. Photo credit: Aidana Khabdesh

In Western media, you only ever see rich, powerful people and celebrities. If any peasants even make it onto your screen, they will be the butt of a joke or steamrolled into submission to the Gods of Entertainment by a juggernaut like Ellen or Maury Povich. Here, you’re allowed to be aspirational to capital, like a five-year-old who runs a lemonade stand. You’re allowed to be a disaster, like a woman coming from poverty and pregnant with her grandpa's kid. But you’re not allowed to just live.

There are exceptions, but most are borrowed and few are non-fiction because caring about poor people and their issues is considered niche. Besides, would you really want to participate in capitalism if you saw the ways it really affects people?

And while media portrayals of the poor are dishonest, they also promote the false narrative that unless you’re rich you can’t be joyful or funny. You can’t feel love or be loved. Sure, the poorer you are the, more expensive life becomes and the more survival drains you, but there is nothing more absurd than the assertion that humanity is expensive and few can afford its luxury.

That’s why YouTube and TikTok creators are such a respite for many: they have something that Reese Witherspoon doesn’t, no matter how many wigs she puts on, that Cohen’s most ingenious pranks will never achieve: authenticity. We still just want to see a chill dude from Idaho skateboard to an old-fashioned song. A self-proclaimed peasant from Hebei chugging beer. A bunch of Ghanaians making an honest living by lighting up a funeral.

Because this is the content that actually makes the world better. That makes people less racist and more understanding of each other. Xenophobia can’t thrive when people actually know how people of a different class, race, or ethnicity live: it has no alienation to feed on.

Yet when you just watch a rich white guy ape existing stereotypes, you only become more assured of what you think you already know. You are fed more racist, imperialist propaganda. The only purpose that serves is to undermine the open-mindedness and connection to each other we need to make sure the Holocaust never happens again. And although it seems like an important pursuit for Sacha Baron Cohen, I’m afraid he will keep failing at it until he recognizes that to avert genocides, you need to understand how they happened in the first place. And it’s always the same: by those in charge of the cultural dialogue substituting stereotypes for humans.

More by Katya Kazbek:
Borat and a Product of Liberal Racism—Ft. Katya Kazbek ('Escape From Plan A Ep. 223')

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Katya Kazbek

Published 4 years ago

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