oDR: Opinion

Borat profits from Kazakhstan’s name, we don’t

The release of the Borat sequel has prompted debate and outrage in Kazakhstan over systemic racism and misrepresentation.

Aizada Arystanbek
28 October 2020, 9.47am
Source: YouTube

Speaking to the New York Times, British satirist Sacha Baron Cohen says he felt compelled to bring Borat back to international screens not only to “make people laugh”, but to “reveal the dangerous slide to authoritarianism”.

I have not seen Borat 2 (Full title: Borat Subsequent Movie Film: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan), but I am confident that film has good chances at succeeding in ridiculing its American audience, with such inflated plot lines as Borat keeping his daughter in a cage or the latter’s encounter with Rudy Giuliani.

The real issue is how truly funny it is for Sacha Baron Cohen to use a “Third World” country like Kazakhstan as a punchline. As a Kazakh woman, I want to highlight the inconsistency of Hollywood’s rhetoric of representation politics, which seemingly only matters when its subjects do not come from “developing” nations. There’s also the privilege that allows western creators to use other nations as tools, yet they are shielded from any responsibility by resorting to the naïve argument that these films are more about the US than any other country.

Indeed, the question of whether or not Borat constitutes a violence of misrepresentation for Kazakhstani people has generated debate within the country. Back in 2006, when the first Borat film came out, the age of hashtags and radical social media polarisation had yet to materialise. Then, after the movie was promptly banned in the country as inaccurate and offensive, the people of Kazakhstan either did not seem to care much about the movie or simply did not have the right instruments to express their feelings toward it.

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Today, smartphone in hand, Kazakhstanis are fueled by their own experiences of having dealt with Borat-inspired jokes and questions about their country for the past 14 years. This is how the #CancelBorat movement was born in Kazakhstan, which started as an online petition (and currently has around 100,000 signatures). The movement finds the character offensive, xenophobic and racist.

Borat alone is not responsible for people being racist towards Kazakhstani migrants, but it gives a lot of people a comfortable instrument to use against us. Borat has been used to validate people’s racism, ignorance or exoticisation of Kazakhstan

Kazakhstani critics opposing the movement rightfully point out that the comedy itself is not about our country, but about America’s inner prejudices. They also argue that, as Kazakhstanis, we should focus on rampant corruption, human rights abuses and many other “real problems” in the country.

I am dedicating my life to investigating the ways in which my government’s policies have failed its people, and women in particular. I understand all the frustration and anger towards Kazakhstan’s political regime, which by far eclipse any grievances against Borat. However, to claim that finding Borat problematic negates one’s ability to recognise the bigger issues we face as a nation is a disservice to the many activists who advocate both for democratic change in Kazakhstan and an accurate representation on the silver screen. It does not have to be a question of either or, as so many Kazakhstani bloggers claim it to be.

If Baron Cohen’s sole purpose was to mock Americans, I wonder why he didn’t simply make up a country for Borat. For instance, his character from The Dictator (2012), offensive as it was in its reductive portrayal of a non-descript “Middle East”, is not tied to any real country. Opting for a real country must have been a strategic choice, but it is also a product of an environment that exists in the western film industry which allows its creators, white people in particular, to use and abuse other cultures for their own purposes. The fact that few in the US know about “far away” Kazakhstan arguably made it a safe choice as well.

This would not be the first time that American comedians use authoritarian countries removed from US popular culture to create content. Back in 2014, for instance, The Interview, a comedy about the assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, generated controversy. While the plots and fictional role of each country are significantly different, both movies demonstrate how easily it is for westerners to dehumanise people of “Third World” countries. This dehumanisation has been used to justify and turn a blind eye to the oppression and exploitation of people of colour, which I discuss below.

Accurate and respectful representation has proven to be something that communities of colour had to fight for by carving out a space for themselves in western cinema. Not all communities are large enough with a sufficient demographic presence to be able to do that. This leaves others in a dangerous zone where their names, history, and culture become expendable for mainstream western culture.

A good example is a recent flash mob to mark the raising of a Borat statue in Sydney, Australia. A crowd of men did yoga in their “maskinis” with Kazakhstani flags surrounding them. The importance of a flag for any nation state is obvious. Americans have to pledge allegiance to theirs in school every day. As long as we live in the world made up of nations and exist in a global society where national identities carry significant weight in how we see and judge people, why are Kazakhstanis advised to disregard Baron Cohen’s appropriation of their flag and are instantly subjected to questions of what do their frustrations indicate of the country’s postcolonial and xenophobic nationalism? Many people on Twitter who have joined #CancelBorat, for instance, are particularly calling out what they see as a hypocrisy of the representation politics of the west and its failure to raise the issue of the violence of representation done to Central Asia that has already been widely discussed in the context of other Asian communities, like East Asia and Asian-Americans.

Context matters

While it is true that the creators of Borat did not aim to create a bad PR campaign for a whole country, Baron Cohen’s initial goal of exposing American culture does not absolve him and his team from contributing to perpetual ignorance about the Central Asian region.

Kazakhstan’s unique positionality as an Asian country is crucial here. Commentary likening Borat’s character to the caricaturist representation of Russians as villains, for example, constitutes a weak comparison when we think of the level of common knowledge about Russia as a country across the globe and the constant erasure of Central Asia as a distinct indigenous region. Moreover, Russian people preserve their whiteness, which is not held against them in different situations and does not expose them to racist attacks and questions.

While Baron Cohen may be concerned about the United States’ move towards authoritarianism, we have lived under an authoritarian regime for decades

In addition, Sacha Baron Cohen’s bias can also serve as a confirmation of pre-existing racist misconceptions and power dynamics. People are now emigrating from Kazakhstan in greater numbers than before, mostly due to the lack of opportunities and freedoms in the country. I am one of them. As we search for more open-minded communities elsewhere, we face xenophobia and racism.

Borat alone is not responsible for people being racist towards Kazakhstani migrants, but it gives a lot of people a comfortable instrument to use against us. Borat has been used to validate people’s racism, ignorance or exoticisation of Kazakhstan. For instance, Russian influencers say that Kazakhstanis are embarrassing themselves by not being able to laugh at Borat when the same motifs of backwardness with which Baron Cohen portrays Borat are often used in Russia when discriminating against Central Asian people, justifying the colonisation of the region by Tsarist Russia as a “civilising mission”, and diminishing the long-lasting consequences of colonisation, such as genocide and exposure to nuclear radiation.

While Baron Cohen may be concerned about the United States’ move towards authoritarianism, we have lived under an authoritarian regime for decades bearing its consequences. There is some level of irony that Borat is meant to alert Americans to the horrors of authoritarianism, when Kazakhstani people have unsuccessfully been trying to do the same regarding real-life Kazakhstan, whose autocratic leader has had carefully managed diplomatic relations with many western countries, including the US, granting him international legitimacy for almost 30 years.

As Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned from his post as president in 2019, Kazakhstan was experiencing a major civil society awakening with peaceful protests spreading all over the country. People demanded fair elections and freedom from severe crackdowns on civil liberties and jailing and persecution of activists. Under new president Qasym-Jomart Toqayev, the protests of 2019 were bluntly suppressed with military force and received little coverage and expressions of solidarity from people outside of Central Asia. People, myself included, were tweeting updates in English to attract more coverage to what was happening in our country. We just wanted to be heard as protesters kept disappearing into the back of police vans. It does not help that the only internationally popular thing that gives Kazakhstanis visibility happens to be a movie which bears no relation to them at all.

Along with Uyghurs, Kazakhs are one of the ethnic groups detained in Chinese concentration camps for Muslims today. Earlier this year, when Disney came out with the live action Mulan movie, people in the US were quick to call for its boycott partly due to the movie’s ties with Xinjiang, where the majority of the camps are located. Baron Cohen making a movie that contributes to the people’s lack of education about an ethnic group currently being persecuted by one of the most powerful surveillance states in the world could be in no way less offensive than Disney filming its blockbuster in Xinjiang. Both demonstrate callous indifference to the people imprisoned by the Chinese government. State violence largely relies on people’s willingness to look away. Baron Cohen should know this, since only last year he made a speech about the danger of the spread of misinformation on Facebook and other social media platforms. He advocates for democracy in the US, but insists on distancing himself from the political context of the country whose name he uses for profit.

Storytelling continues to be a powerful tool for change as it submerges the audience in other people’s realities and struggles. Empathising with others and expressing solidarity is often not a question of intellect but of kindness, which is made easier the more we know stories about “other” groups. Given Kazakhstan’s lack of representation in western media, any stories that foreground the country and which gain momentum in popular culture have a certain power over the world’s perception of Kazakhstan and its people, even if it's outside the creators’ intentions. In Borat’s case, that power rests solely in the hands of a westerner representing a Central Asian country - and the scant regard for what his fictitious character leaves us to grapple with in real life.

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