Borat: a Bi-cultural Mockumentary
The movie Borat is one of the most famous pieces in modern comedy cinematography. It is often listed as one of the best all-time comedy movies on many popular websites, such as IMDb, BFI and Metacritic. Sascha Baron Cohen, who is the co-writer and plays the main role in the movie, portrays a journalist from Kazakhstan who went to report about the US and along the way fell in love with Pamela Anderson, who plays herself. Borat was a success all over the world and is still quoted frequently in popular culture.
In this paper, the aim is to explore the movie's cultural, societal and political implications. The film was a global success and is frequently cited in pop-culture today. However, Borat is also a good example of a relatively new cinematography genre, the mockumentary. I'm going to explore the implications of the genre through the cultural binary. As the two cultures, American (Western) and Kazakh are opposed and the comedy is built upon the empty niches and communication barriers, it is interesting to analyze this on multiple levels. Many times the viewer is faced with Borat’s unfamiliarity with new cultural codes and relations in the new surroundings. Therefore, the researcher will systematically deconstruct different elements that contribute to the sarcastic understanding characteristic of the mockumentary and its inherent nature.
Borat as a Bi-cultural Mockumentary
The mockumentary, also called mock-documentary, is a relatively new genre in modern cinematography. It emerged as a response to the popularity of documentaries. The mockumentary uses the narrative style of the documentary but twists it to produce an edgy kind of humour. There are many variations and forms, but most mimic human flaws, poke fun at our assumptions and make no apologies. They make us laugh at our discomfort in the process (Miller, 2012: 9).
The most important trait is that mockumentary simply undermines the documentary’s claim to objectively tell the truth.
Debates about mass media and its effects capture what the mockumentary is all about. Due to frequent media exposure, it is now possible to culturally distinct low art from high art. Furthermore, what is frequently contested in the context of cinematography is whether something is real, authentic and factual, or fake. Hence the paradigm of the nature of representation has shifted significantly, changing the perception on authenticity as well. Lipkin et al (2006: 14) further define mockumentary through the following points:
- mockumentaries utilize documentary aesthetics to structure a fictional narrative, thereby detaching the direct (factual) connection between the image and the referent;
- they make fun of the documentary as a screen form, of their practitioners, and of cultural, social and political icons;
- they seek to develop a connection with an audience that will recognize both the satirical tone as well as inherent critical reflexivity of the form.
The most important trait is that the mockumentary simply undermines the documentary’s claim to objectively tell the truth. When it comes to Borat, it is visible that it uses a spectrum of familiar documentary conventions. The opening scene contains grainy footage and a hand-held camera. Throughout the movie, the viewers can see Borat’s self-recorded scenes, like when he expresses his fear about staying in a Jewish family home. Due to exaggerations, but also to marketing and the viewer’s privileged positions of knowing, we are able to detach ourselves from what might be an actual portrayal of Kazakhstan, the US and the characters (Campbell, 2007).
Upon the projection of the movie, Sascha Baron Cohen invited George Bush, at the time the President of the United States, to come and watch the film. The broad public was also familiar with his character from Da Ali G Show. During the opening weekend in the US, the movie grossed 26.5 million dollars, while the cumulative worldwide gross was 261.5 million dollars. It was also very successful with the critics as it won two Golden Globes and was nominated for an Oscar (IMDb.com, 2006).
The plot starts with the footage of the Kazakh village where the viewer meets Borat, his family and his neighbours. Then the viewer is informed that Borat has been encouraged by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to go to the US and report from there, all in the best interest of international relations. However, throughout his journey, Borat faces a lot of difficulties, mainly because of his position as an outsider. The root cause of the trouble Borat gets into is not only his inability to comprehend a completely different culture but in some cases also because of American ignorance. In that sense, the movie does not only put emphasis on the satirical representation of just one culture. It systematically opposes two clashing cultures using documentary settings, which makes it even more satirical because of over-interpretation and frequent exaggeration.
Due to its offensive nature, the movie landed a few controversies as well. The screening was forbidden in the entire Arab world. Also, there have been a few lawsuits regarding copyrights and defamation. Many people depicted in the movie complained that they did not know about its true nature. They claimed that they were lied to, or filmed without knowing how they would be portrayed later on (IMDb.com, 2016).
Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
For this particular analysis, the research question is: How are the elements of the mockumentary genre used to reinforce the contrast between the western (American) and Kazakh Culture? In order to answer that question, I will systematically use familiar terms from the literature and apply them to scenes from the movie. The codes and implicit meanings that emerge from these scenes will be further elaborated as well. There will also be a specific part about Borat’s character in the context of media texts.
Crucial to performing this analysis are the notions of parody, critique and deconstruction, from Lipkin et al (2006). Each of these notions can be divided into sub-categories. Through the notion of parody, the focus will be on the critique of the documentary project and how emphatically it contributes to its humour. Under critique, sub-categories such as inherent reflexivity and stereotype portrayal will be analyzed. Finally, the notion of deconstruction will show how the layering of certain aspects, such as symbols, written and spoken language, and the use of locations affect the representation.
For the purpose of transparent and systematic analysis, certain scenes from the movie will be taken into consideration. These scenes are:
- the ‘national anthem scene’, in which Borat holds a speech and sings the anthem in front of thousands of Americans at Rodeo Stadium,
- the ‘feminist scene’, in which Borat interviews three veteran feminists,
- the ‘bed and breakfast scene’, in which Borat and his companion Azamat spend the night at a Jewish couple’s home.
These scenes are not among the most famous of the film but they are also frequently used as cross-cultural references. They are layered with the analytical notions described above. Hence the analysis will focus on the representation of parody, critique and deconstruction through three different scenes.
"We support your war of terror!"
The first scene analyzed is the national anthem scene. It starts off with Borat confidently walking towards the middle of the Rodeo. Then, instead of singing the American anthem, he gives a speech about the war in Iraq. After the initial few rounds of applause, the crowd starts being more weirded out by what he is saying and finally, boos him out when he starts singing the Kazakh national anthem.
The parody aspect can be found in the authenticity of the scene when there are camera shots of people in the stadium, as well as a cameraman who is following Borat towards the middle of the court and filming him the entire time. These types of scenes can often be found in live streamings of big events. This ‘classic objectivity’ completely contrasts the absurdity of the content, as Borat is doing something that is not very likely to occur in real life. He makes very bold statements as the crowd starts to dislike him more and more, up until the point of authenticity being completely lost and the viewer is now ‘aware’ that what is going on does not have anything to do with cinematographic realism.
The critique lies in both cultures equally, suggesting that they are brainwashed and unintelligent.
The critique aspect can be applied on micro- and macro-levels. On a micro-level, the scene criticizes the formality of trivial events and the incapability of the organisers to find adequate guest performers, which can result in catastrophe even in real life. On a macro-level, the communication between Borat and the audience suggests that there is something deeply wrong with American culture and society. When Borat says We support your war of terror!... the whole crowd starts cheering euphorically. The critique aims at both cultures equally, suggesting that they are brainwashed and unintelligent.
The last aspect is the deconstruction, which is a group of elements that gather documentary aspects, and then use them to dismantle the very foundations of the documentary genre. In this particular scene, there are many examples of the appropriation of documentary codes: the uses of the location and the filming techniques, especially the hand-held camera filming Borat. Furthermore, the way Borat speaks and the way he is dressed (a shirt with American flag print all over) also contribute to the emphasized deconstruction. Finally, the use of language, from the broken accent to the autocratic performance, show the rawness of unedited and unembellished documentary-style narrative.
Borat meets three feminists
The second scene is the one in which Borat speaks to three feminists. In his overture to the interview, he explains that in Kazakhstan it is illegal for more than five women to be in the same space, except for the brothel or the grave. He then continues to interrogate the feminists about feminism and consequently asks them about Pamela Anderson and how to reach her.
In this scene, the parody aspect is visible in the questionable comments Borat directs at the women. First, he emphasizes the treatment of women in Kazakhstan. Then, during the communication with one of the feminists, he loses focus and starts daydreaming about Pamela Anderson, implying that the woman talking to him is an ‘old man’. The parodic aspect also lies in Borat’s lack of knowledge where the viewer cannot tell if he is joking or not. On the one hand, he is doing an official interview, therefore, he needs to act professionally. On the other hand, he laughs in an inappropriate moment and doesn’t follow interview guidelines at all. In that sense, the movie is not only mocking Borat’s culture and feminists but also journalistic conventions, in this particular case those of the interview.
Critique can be applied to the satirical nature of usually factual discourse. The ‘interview’ can be equally well perceived as a parody or as an actual event, but before cutting and editing. The criticism here can also be seen in relation to societal issues that concern feminism, and the question is whether the performativity in the scene reflects the realism of the film or the actual cultural perception of feminism.
Deconstruction is inherent in the use of language, which tends to be factual, meaning raw and unedited. The viewer can also see the paradoxical relationship between the structure of the interview, which is a professional form reserved for news programs, and humour which works against realism, but again, serves to represent deeply rooted societal, cultural and political issues.
Cockroaches as hosts
The third and final scene analyzed is the one in which Borat and his companion Azamat spend the night at a Jewish couple’s home. After finding out that the couple is Jewish, Borat and Azamat break into an irrational fear and look for a way to escape. When they are offered food, they think it is poisoned. Later, they see two cockroaches on the floor and assume that those are their hosts.
The parody aspect in this scene is visible in techniques appropriated from the classical documentary genre: Borat’s diary-style self-recording in the middle of the night and switching between the two languages to show the clash of cultures.
Furthermore, the critique aspect can be seen in the extreme anti-semitism, one of Borat’s main traits throughout the movie, and which suggests that Kazakh society tends to discriminate against Jews. In fact, ignorance reaches so deep that Borat and Azamat are convinced that Jewish people can turn into animals and have horns. Appropriating the technique of self-recording makes this seem more authentic because there is no mediator between Borat and the viewer. This raises the question whether this technique is actually a connection to the signifier or just a fabricated illusion of realism meant to deceive the viewer into thinking that something is truthful.
Finally, the deconstruction aspect touches upon the intentions of producers to build an effective parody while sticking to documentary elements. These elements can be found in the use of language and symbols, especially visible in how Borat handles his fear. In his self-recording shot, he appears scared and he is holding an object that looks like an axe as well as some money. These symbols add to the documentary paradigm and are reminiscent of survival documentaries where people are in constant fear for their life. After saying that he can even see the old lady’s horns, he hears noises and turns off the camera. Next shot is Borat and Azamat trying to escape but two cockroaches block their way, so in self-defence, they throw money at them in hope that the cockroaches don’t hurt them. These consequential shots of escape also remind one of the wilderness in which many documentaries take place. In cases of danger, the cameraman runs behind the subjects, and the shaky camera adds to the realism.
The uniqueness of Cohen's character is central to the comedic aspect of the movie.
These three scenes represent how appropriating documentary techniques can contribute to mocking the genre. However, what really distinguishes the film from a documentary, made people aware of its artificiality, and contributed to the global success, is Sascha Baron Cohen’s image. The uniqueness of his character is central to the comedic aspect of the movie. Batty (2014) highlights the importance of character in media texts, saying that they populate the narrative and make it feel credible as well as guide the viewer through the narrative, to elicit meaning.
Borat represents more than a central character. He obtains culture, beliefs and attitudes which define the development of the narrative and connect to the audience on a different level than documentaries. The paradoxical relationship between the viewer’s knowledge and Borat’s lack of it shows that the indexicality of modern documentary cinematography needs to be redefined. Furthermore, it shows that the mockumentary genre is about its absurdity. It de-stabilizes the actual genre it is derived from. The viewer now does not take truth ‘for granted’ anymore and becomes aware of what goes on behind the camera.
The sense of artificiality is present when editing is consciously changed in order to show how easily deceptive filmmaking can be. Roscoe (2006) also notes that documentaries do not only intend to objectively show the reality, but also take a stance towards it and comment upon it. In mockumentaries, this position is augmented. In Borat, there is a sense of ambiguity because the film mocks both cultures, Kazakh and American, and all the characters who represent these cultures. There is no ideological or ethical perspective to the film, it makes fun of everyone and therefore, it is an excellent prototype for new mockumentaries that seek to show politically, culturally and socially unsettling perspectives.
Borat and mockumentaries
In this paper, the aim was to explore cultural, societal and political aspects of the movie Borat. The film was a global success and is frequently cited in pop-culture today. Borat is a good example of the mockumentary, a genre that has emerged as a response to documentary filmmaking. The genre’s goal is to question the trustworthiness of documentaries and to dismantle the projection of authenticity. Therefore, a certain shift has happened, where factuality is not about the objective truth, but about its representation of how the filmmaker sees it.
This has been addressed in the literature before; I wanted to analyze three famous scenes from the film through three crucial notions of the documentary: parody, critique and deconstruction. The parody aspect is visible in mocking various documentary and journalistic conventions, such as self-recording and interviewing, in order to point out the bad traits of the characters. The critique aspect aims to expose the ‘truthfulness’ of documentaries, and in that way criticizes the ignorance in both Kazakh and American culture. The movie is very ambiguous and does not take a side, but rather mocks both cultures.
Lastly, the notion of deconstruction refers to using documentary techniques in order to dismantle the truthfulness attributed to documentary filmmaking. In Borat, this notion of deconstruction is visible through micro-elements such as the use of language, symbolism, the locations selected for shooting, and specific humour. One example is Borat performing at the Rodeo stadium wearing a US flag shirt.
While these notions help the viewers to distance themselves and to shelve their expectations of authenticity and truthfulness, what rounds up the whole movie as a brand is Cohen’s image. His authentic performance serves as guidance through the narrative and at the same time gives it a meaning. Hence, this type of mockumentary – the type that moves the boundaries of social, political and cultural mockery - will be interesting to analyze in the future as well, especially because it is a young genre which still needs to reach its full potential.
Batty, C. (2014) Me and You and Everyone We Know: The Centrality of Character in Understanding Media Texts. Real Lives, Celebrity Stories. Bronwen Thomas and Julia Round (eds.) London, Oxford: Bloomsbury.
Campbell, M. (2007) The Mocking Mockumentary and the Ethics of Irony. Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education. 11, 1. doi: https://doi.org/10.31390/taboo.11.1.08
IMDb (2006) Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Available on: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0443453/ [Accessed: 26th May 2019]
Lipkin, S. N., Paget, D. and Roscoe, J. (2006) Docudrama and MockDocumentary: Defining Terms, Proposing Canons. Docufictions. Essays on the Intersection of Documentary and Fictional Filmmaking. Jefferson and London: McFarland and Company.
Miller, C. J. (2012) Too Bold for the Box Office: The Mockumentary from Big Screen to Small. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press.
Roscoe, J. (2006) Man Bites Dog: Deconstructing the Documentary Look. Docufictions. Essays on the Intersection of Documentary and Fictional Filmmaking. Jefferson and London: McFarland and Company.