Borat is brilliant, but its Holocaust jokes are beyond the pale
Satire is ridicule of the powerful, or at least it should be. Clown is another form of comedy, but in the hands of Sacha Baron Cohen it is also a way of puncturing the pomposity of the mighty and self-important.
In his early Ali G interviews with the foolishly famous, Donald Trump included, they nearly all fell for it, too vain to realise the ruse being played on them. There were rare exceptions like the late Tony Benn, who immediately challenged Ali G’s use of crude sexist language, his dignity shining through.
Baron Cohen has now returned in a sequel to his hit Borat, the Kazakh clown who exposed the prejudice and hypocrisy of George W Bush’s America back in 2006. No one can doubt the English actor's bravery - in that first film he stood in front of a stadium full of foaming red-faced Republicans and made them boo him in fury, causing a horse to collapse amid the mayhem.
In his reprise of Borat, he returns to his fictive version of the central Asian nation, with Borat in prison and given a second chance by the country’s thuggish president, who wants Donald Trump (now US president) to include him among his friends, sending Borat back to America to deliver a gift to the orange one.
The Kazakhstan of Borat is a post-Soviet backwater where there are no mobile phones, people live in shacks and young wives are kept in cages, while the national festival is “the running of the Jew". In other words, it’s a gruesome conjuring of Muslim central Asia, where people cheerfully live under a veil of hatred, misogyny and incest.
This may all be a cosmic joke that allows Borat to go to the US and expose the prejudices and ignorance of evangelical America and Trump’s Republicans, which he does brilliantly. On the other hand, as satire it is a very uneasy mix - punching up at right-wing America, while punching down against a developing country and a whole swathe of humanity - Asian Muslims.
The comedian fatally undermines himself - or worse, is smuggling prejudice beneath a liberal facade
In Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Baron Cohen forms a double act with Bulgarian actor Maria Bakalova. She steals the show as his plucky, wildly unschooled daughter, who comes with him to America and makes each set-up zing with a tone-perfect mix of innocence and sass.
In the most gobsmacking scene of the film, and there are a few of these, she honey traps former New York mayor and Trump’s liar in chief, Rudy Giuliani, in an interview at a hotel which, after some queasy flirtation, ends up in the bedroom. Only the last-minute entry of Borat in underwear halts proceedings. Even as Rudy fiddles with his flies, Bakalova remains unflappable.
These moments of undeniable genius, though, can’t get us away from the fundamental flaw in Baron Cohen’s comedic ouvre. For someone whose Jewishness is so evidently part of his motive in exposing the prejudice of his victims, the comedian fatally undermines himself - or worse, is smuggling prejudice beneath a liberal facade. Baron Cohen is the king of wince-making bad taste. We love his irreverence, but it comes with a hefty dose of bigotry.
Jokes and lies
In probably the most outrageous bit of historical revisionism, the Kazakhs are proud of their purported role in hosting the Holocaust death camps. In the US, Bakalova is shocked when she discovers a far-right Facebook page denying the Holocaust, believing it to be true, and her genocidal national pride now shattered.
This little joke of Baron Cohen’s can hardly be an accident, and presumably someone so sharply intelligent cannot have missed that this is the reverse of the historical truth. Kazakhstan was a refuge for thousands of Jews during the Second World War, as they fled eastwards from the invading Nazi forces, who massacred Jews in the wake of Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa. It’s one thing to make village idiot jokes, it’s another to falsely accuse a nation of hosting the Holocaust.
It’s one thing to make village idiot jokes, it’s another to falsely accuse a nation of hosting the Holocaust
So we have a “real” lie, wrapped up in the filmmaker’s lie. To reverse the history of the Second World War, and accuse a former Soviet state of participating in the Holocaust, when in reality it was the Soviets who fought the Nazis at the cost of 26 million dead, and liberated Auschwitz, cannot be dismissed as mere comedic licence. It is the kind of historical revisionism that only the far right, and the Trumps of this world, would engage in. Baron Cohen is doing what he’s sending up.
The actor-comedian has made a career in playing fools who are inescapably Muslim, from Ali G to Borat to The Dictator, a little disguised Muammar Gaddafi. To be fair to him, he’s also sent up others, from an Austrian fashion designer to an Israeli martial arts instructor in Who is America?
With his tremendous success he has also showed up many a wealthy celebrity with his generous donations to Syrian refugees, and he is peerless in exposing the bigotry of America’s politics, gun culture and religious extremism.
In this new film, he meets an old Jewish lady while absurdly disguised as a Jew with a ridiculous prosthetic nose. She responds with love and understanding to the Jew-phobic Kazakh. But his lesson in antisemitism is wrapped up in Islamophobia (Borat believes the Jew will suck his blood).
No group can be immune from comedy, but in a world in which actual history is being falsified in order to mainstream far right ideas, blaming central Asian Muslims for the Holocaust is up there with the worst that any Trump alt-right revisionism has to offer. And it’s not even very funny.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.