While comedian Sacha Baron Cohen – better known now as “Borat” – may be funny, many Kazakhstan natives aren’t laughing. And on a campus like GW’s, and in a town like D.C., the politics of this weekend’s blockbuster definitely matter.
“If a real Kazakh guy saw Sacha Baron Cohen on the street, he would punch him in a very bad way,” freshman and Kazakhstan native Aisha Bozzhigitova said after seeing the movie this weekend.
Kairat Nitkaliev, who was a surgeon in Almaty, Kazakhstan before he enrolled in GW’s Health Services Administration program, prefers a more passive course of action.
“If I saw a bunch of guys beating up that comedian, I wouldn’t stop them. But, I wouldn’t get involved either. I don’t want trouble with the police,” he said.
Nearly eight years ago, British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen concocted the character Borat, a doggedly raunchy fictional journalist from Kazakhstan, and began taking aim at American xenophobia and supposed Kazakh culture.
His movie, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” released Friday, chronicles Borat as he sets out from his “native country” Kazakhstan and treks across America. Along the way, Borat proudly introduces his sister – “No. 4 prostitute in Kazakhstan!” – his anti-Semitic prejudices and numerous examples of American xenophobia.
GW Kazakh students’ opinions on Borat fall on all sides: some see offense, many see the humor, while others are just confused. But they all can agree on one thing: they don’t see Kazakhstan.
“As long as people understand Sacha Baron Cohen’s character is a joke – not a real person representing Kazakhstan – then I’m okay with it,” Bozzhigitova said. “But some people don’t know that Cohen does not honestly represent Kazakhstan. And he doesn’t.”
And many Kazakhs say that everything about Borat is an inaccurate depiction of their country – from his look to his anti-Semitic and misogynistic tone.
“For that reason, I would be happy if Borat didn’t exist. I don’t care that it’s hilarious. I don’t care about the money. I’m a patriot of my country. When people offend Kazakhstan, I get really pissed,” she said.
However, after a pause, she smiles. “But I see a little humor – sexy time!” she said, quoting a Borat line.
Others agreed with Bozzhigitova that Borat mischaracterizes their country. Gulsum Tursumbayeva, a computer science and business administration major from Almaty, Kazakhstan, said that the movie gives her more insight into American culture and beliefs than her own.
“Honestly, after watching the movie, I have more questions about America than Kazakhstan,” she said.
Only two months into her first semester in America, Tursumbayeva attends GW on a Bolashak scholarship awarded by the government of Kazakhstan. Her boyfriend of one year, Kairat Nitkaliyev, is a Master of Health Services Administration student studying at GW on the same scholarship.
“We petitioned the government to let us study at the same university, and we were lucky,” Tursumbayeva said. And as the Kazakh couple watched Borat’s movie Friday they laughed, but they also didn’t find humor in some of his jokes.
In one part of the movie, the two turned to each other in disbelief as they watched members of a California church speak in tongues and run around the sanctuary yelling.
“Why were those people running and screaming in a house of God?” Nitkaliyev asked after the movie.
“And why did the audience laugh when Borat and his obese assistant chased each other naked through a hotel lobby?”
Nitkaliev grimaced as Borat and his assistant concluded their naked dash, collapsing on top of each other on the main stage of a crowded financial convention. Laughter erupted in the crowded Georgetown movie theater. But the two Kazakhs didn’t get it.
“I don’t understand,” Nitkaliev said. “In Kazakhstan, it would be considered an embarrassing and sick joke.”
No doubt, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” has ample material to rankle Americans as well.
A car salesman proudly boasts that a Hummer on display could run down and kill a Jew going only 30 to 35 miles per hour. Later, Borat sets the stage for a rodeo cowboy to openly support murdering homosexuals. And that’s clearly Borat’s point – to bring to light cultural ignorance – but Kazakhs are the most offended because Borat has chosen to identify himself with their country.
“I believe Sacha Baron Cohen plays the Borat character in order to expose the ignorance of those who do not know the world beyond their borders,” Roman Vassilenko, a representative of the Embassy of Kazakhstan, said last week.
In response to the movie, which had a lot of publicity prior to its release, Kazakhstan launched commercials in the U.S. promoting their country as friendly and open to Americans, in an effort to dispel Borat’s mischaracterizations.
“I hope that people will realize that whatever he represents, he is not an actual character,” Vassilenko said. “We are concerned that the irony might be lost on some people. What we’re doing is trying to tell people about the real Kazakhstan.”
After the movie Tursumbayeva had several criticisms of Borat’s character that she wanted to point out:
“You know,” she said, “women ride inside buses, Kazakh guys don’t greet strangers with a kiss on the lips and, certainly the majority of our country does not live in shacks.”
Others see at least one positive aspect about that movie – it’s getting people to talk about a country they may not even know of otherwise.
“It’s good that people are suddenly interested in Kazakhstan,” Nitkaliev said. “But, it’s annoying to have to answer all of these questions. I wish this all didn’t happen.”
Even after the movie was over Friday, Borat was still on everyone’s minds. “High five! Kazakhstan!” yells one moviegoer after he left the theater.
It appears that in the U.S., the movie’s release has launched a thousand imitation Borats. It’s enough to make anyone say Wa-wa-wee-wa!