Friday, November 10, 2006
Not since the fall of communism has the former Soviet Union seemed so immersed in the media spotlight.
TV news and entertainment programs, movie theaters and Web sites have been infatuated during the last week with one denizen of that region in particular: Borat Sagdiyev.
His movie, "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," follows the raunchy Kazakh reporter as he hatches observations while traveling from New York to California.
Only Borat is really comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. And he's from England, not Kazakhstan.
The trouble is that for many Americans, their whole impression of Kazakhstan comes from Borat's less-than-flattering portrayal.
"It makes me feel uncomfortable," says Zhanar Bekturganova, a Kansas University student from Kazakhstan.
"The whole thing he is saying is not true. It's not very pleasant to see how someone is telling not very good things about your country."
Bekturganova is not without a sense of humor about Borat. She admits to finding some of his gags funny. But it is more the effect he's had on Americans that she resents.
"Many people are trying to (quote) things from the movie to me. They think he's a very funny, interesting person. But some of them still think our country is something like he is showing. They ask me, 'Is it true in Kazakhstan people have sex with their sisters?'"
Erik Herron was familiar with Cohen's work on TV's "Da Ali G Show" and has seen clips from "Borat" on YouTube. As director of KU's Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies, he was initially amused by Borat's schtick.
"In some respect it's more of a social and political satire of the United States than it is of Kazakhstan," Herron says. "The danger is that American public opinion is sometimes swayed by information that is not entirely accurate. It worries me there will be a perception of it as a country of misogynistic, anti-Semitic, anti-gypsy, racist, horse urine drinkers."
There is a surprisingly large contingent of Kazakh students in the Lawrence area. Nine currently attend KU, and another handful are scattered throughout Kansas City.
"I know only five of them," says the 19-year-old Bekturganova, who is studying architecture at KU. "We are here to study, so we don't go out a lot. We live in different dormitories, so it's hard to be friends. But we know each other. Sometimes we go to movies like this."
A native of the city of Karaganda, which is populated by nearly a half-million people, Bekturganova says the depiction of her homeland in "Borat" is a complete fabrication.
"It's pretty big," she says of Kazakhstan, which is the world's ninth-largest country. "There are a lot of rich people in our country. We have a lot of cars. We live in the usual buildings. It's a modern country. There are no cars pulled by donkeys."
Geographically, the nation is bordered by Russian, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and China, and it shares a coastline on the Caspian Sea.
She adds, "We have a stable economy. We're a very young country. Democratic. If it was a country like Borat is showing, I wouldn't be here. But I'm here. I have a scholarship from my government. Our education system is not perfect. But they're trying to be sure in their future, so they've sent young people to study abroad."
Coincidentally, the same day "Borat" was released into theaters last weekend, a visiting contingent from Kazakhstan arrived in Lawrence.
KU economics professor Mohamed El-Hodiri brought six Kazakh doctoral students to campus for a two-week visit. Their collective reaction was very similar to Bekturganova's.
"I'm angry," says Asset Botaibekov. "Simply, his jokes are not correct for Kazakhstan. It's not true. Now he's a person non grata in Kazakhstan."
(In a news conference, Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Yerzhan Ashykbayev called Cohen's character "utterly unacceptable, being a concoction of bad taste and ill manners which is completely incompatible with the ethics and civilized behavior of Kazakhstan's people.")
The group of students said they were accustomed to watching American movies, citing recent examples such as "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" and the latest "Mission: Impossible" sequel. But they were split on whether they would use their downtime this week to catch a showing of "Borat."
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan ****
Sacha Baron Cohen is Borat, an enthusiastic journalist from Kazakhstan who travels across America to make a documentary. The film continuously blurs the line between its fictional narrative-which features actors-and documentary-style sneak attacks on oblivious real people. A biting satire on prejudice and bigotry, it is the most fearless and funny comedy in years.
Fallout from satire
Professor Herron says that most of the Kazakhstan-oriented information dispensed by Borat has no basis in fact.
The depiction of the region as sub-provincial huts where cows share rooms with citizens is, of course, ridiculous. (Scenes from this part of the movie were actually shot in Romania.)
Herron describes Kazakhstan as a country that is starting to devote a large percentage of its oil wealth to education.
He also says Borat's outrageously anti-Semitic behavior (comedian Cohen himself is Jewish) is a gross exaggeration.
"Within the Soviet Union there is a large Jewish population," he explains. "There has been anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union and the former Soviet Union, but it is not something that has been as great of a concern with Kazakhstan as with other parts."
However, Herron does understand why Cohen would choose the country as the starting point for his faux character.
"Kazakhstan doesn't have an internationally famous event or internationally known historical figure associated with it," he says.
Thus, it is all the easier for Cohen to dupe unsuspecting westerners into actually falling for his obnoxious behavior.
Whether Kazakhstan itself will suffer much from Borat's representation is still a matter of debate.
"People aren't going to stark flocking to Kazakhstan for tourism. It's a pretty exotic and hard-to-reach destination. But you don't want to turn off the few tourists you get by these perceptions of it being a relatively uninviting place - even if people know deep down it's satire," Herron says.
"One of the things I've puzzled with is you could probably have an even more vicious satire of Americans and the knowledge they have by making up a country with a 'stan' at the end."