“And heeeeeeeeere comes the Jew!”
A black-coated man with a massive, green-skinned, fanged and hook-nosed puppet head turns the corner and snatches, futilely, at bits of cash.
“Oooh!” shouts the commentator. “He nearly got the money!”
The aforementioned scenario was not a dream conjured up as a result of freebasing Manischewitz, but a scene in a mainstream film with blockbuster buzz building up for its Nov. 3 nationwide release.
And the audience at an advance screening in the East Bay was comprised not of Hitler Youth but young, hip and delighted filmgoers. The Conservative rabbi to my left shouted “Wow!” before laughing good and hard.
The film is called “Borat,” and it is content like the “The Running of the Jew” scene that led the Anti-Defamation League to fire off a release to the world-at-large stating, in effect, that it’s OK to see this movie (an ADL hechsher, if you will).
It’s because of “Borat” that America’s young people are saying things like “Jagshamesh!” and “Throw the Jew down the well.”
And it’s because of “Borat” that the government of Kazakhstan has been buying up voluminous, four-page ads in the New York Times thumping the virtues of the nation (including a teeming wolf population, apparently).
But wolves or no wolves, is this film good (and is it good for the Jews)?
In order to probe that question, j. assembled a three-person panel to attend a recent preview in Emeryville: Rabbi Mark “Wow!” Bloom of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland; Pnina Levermore, executive director of the S.F.-based Climate of Trust Council, which promotes ethnic and religious tolerance in the former Soviet Union; and local film critic Michael Fox.
And if you believe singer Meat Loaf’s contention that “two out of three ain’t bad,” then the film’s backers have reason to rejoice at the panel’s verdict (as the film’s title character, Borat, would say, “High five!”).
But panelists weren’t pleased by everything they saw, be it cartoonish depictions of Kazakhstan or 500 pounds of jiggling, naked male flesh entangled in a death struggle in the foyer of a Southern hotel.
But before we dwell on that enticing prospect, let’s delve into the film’s background. “Borat” ostensibly documents a journey across the United States by Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev — a mustachioed, wild-eyed exhibitionist resembling a cross between Queen frontman Freddie Mercury and Stalin — who alternately comforts and mortifies Americans with his rampant anti-Semitism (e.g. “Here comes the Jew!”), racism and buffoonish ways.
But while the Jew-hatred expressed by Borat’s interview subjects is often very real, Borat is not: He’s a character played by 35-year-old Cambridge-educated British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen — an observant Jew with an Israeli mother.
Imagine “Candid Camera” on Human Growth Hormone and you start to grasp Cohen’s style of attack-comedy portrayed via his three personas: Borat, wanna-be rapper Ali G and flamboyantly gay Austrian fashionista Bruno.
Cohen’s machinations from his HBO program “Da Ali G Show” began to pop up on the organized Jewish community’s radar thanks to “Have you seen this?”-type emails of video clips featuring Borat telling casting agents he “starred in No. 1 Kazakh film, ‘Dirty Jew,'” leading country line-dancers in a gyration titled “Beat the Gypsy” and, most infamously, rousing an entire Arizona honky-tonk bar to lustily sing along with his ditty “Throw the Jew Down the Well.”
While some worried over the bandying about of casual anti-Semitism — even from an observant Jew such as Cohen — others argued that the comedian’s crazy foreigner act revealed a darker side of America in which anti-Semitism and all the other “isms” are more rampant than we’d like to think (that, in a nutshell, was the ADL’s verdict).
With the nationwide release of Cohen’s film, fully titled “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” just around the corner, those concerns were stoked to a fever pitch. So were protestations from the Kazakh government that, among other things, the national sports are not archery, ping-pong and rape, and the national beverage is not fermented horse urine (it’s fermented horse milk).
“Jagshamesh,” the exclamation Borat uses at the beginning of every segment, isn’t even a Kazakh word — it’s pidgin Polish.
Wary of the controversy, j. assembled its panel. And we’ll get to that in a jiffy. But first, a bit about the real Kazakhstan, with nary a mention of horse urine (well, only a drop).
As Cohen warbled in his “Jew down the well” song, “Kazakhstan is big.” In fact, at 1.05 million square miles, it’s the ninth-largest nation in the world by area, only slightly smaller than Argentina and a bit larger than Sudan. Among the nation’s 16 million citizens reside approximately 4,100 Jews.
Since becoming independent with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the nation has been ruled by strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev. The president hasn’t erected a gargantuan golden statue of himself that rotates along with the sun (that — no joke — would be Turkmenbashi, the ruler of neighboring Turkmenistan), but the elections returning the Kazakh leader to power have been rife with irregularities. And, rather than Jews, it’s opposition political leaders who have found themselves down the well — or floating in rivers or, well, let’s just say dead.
On the other hand, the nation’s cup runneth over with oil and diamond money and, not unlike Pakistani ruler Pervez Musharraf, Nazarbayev has gone out of his way to ally himself with the Bush administration’s War on Terror. Any anti-democratic behavior is therefore much easier to tolerate. Nazarbayev was even in Washington, D.C., earlier this month to talk terror with President Bush (and, reportedly, vent about Borat).
In the wake of Nazarbayev’s presidential visit, the New York Times ads and Kazakh diplomats parsing Borat’s falsehoods about their nation one by one, with all the humorless self-righteousness of a graduate philosophy student deconstructing an episode of “The Simpsons,” Cohen one-upped the Kazakhs into a glut of free publicity.
Naturally, he said, Nazarbayev’s visit was to promote “Borat.” And as for the anti-Borat statements of Kazakh Press Secretary Roman Vasilenko and other politicos (including threats of lawsuits and claims that anti-Kazakh forces were in league with the British comedian), Cohen had an answer for them.
Standing at a podium located in front of the Kazakh embassy in Washington, Cohen, in character as Borat (and don’t expect to see him publicly out of character any time soon), noted the Times ads claim Kazakhstan to be a just, egalitarian country.
“These are disgusting fabrications,” he announced. He dismissed Vasilenko as an Uzbek agent, and urged the world to “please don’t listen him.”
“If there is one more item of Uzbek propaganda claiming that we do not drink fermented horse urine, give death penalty for baking bagels or export over 300 tons of human pubis per year, then we will be left with no alternative but to commence bombardment of their cities with our catapults,” he concluded before walking several blocks to hand an invitation to his film to “Premier George Walter Bush.”
Game, set and match to Borat.
Yet while the government of Kazakhstan — a nation in which one is simply not allowed to badmouth the ruling regime in the press or, presumably, anywhere else — is ruffled, the man on the street in capital city Almaty (population 1.2 million) is giggling.
“I saw portions of the show,” Barz Bayen, a correspondent for Kazakhstan’s privately owned TV 31 told the New York Times. “And I can say it is funny.”
But how about that movie? Let’s ask the j. panel.
Our panelists sat in a packed theater full of youngish filmgoers who laughed at every comic barb against Jews, gypsies and Western civilization in general before the trio sipped coffee and munched biscotti while discussing the flick (a homeless man dropped by for a biscotti, but did not offer any cinematic insights).
To say the anti-Semitic jokes in this film were over the top would be akin to calling the Ford Pinto “poorly engineered.” In Borat’s home village, the “Running of the Jew” culminates with “Mrs. Jew” laying a “Jew egg,” which is promptly mauled by young villagers whom Borat encourages to “kill that Jew chick before it hatches!”
During his tour of America, Borat’s morbidly obese producer Azamat — actually an American actor named Ken Davitian — insists on taking ground transportation in case the Jews repeat their 9/11 terror attacks. And Borat and Azamat are terrified when they check into a bed & breakfast operated by a pair of kindly elderly Jews; during the night Borat claims the couple have transformed themselves into cockroaches, and attempts to fend them off by tossing wads of cash at them.
And yet the anti-Semitism didn’t bother the panel at all.
“That part of it was actually great,” said Bloom, of Temple Beth Abraham. “The anti-Semitism was not the offensive part of the movie. I don’t think anyone would be misled that [Cohen] or the filmmakers are anti-Semitic. If it makes fun of anyone, it’s the anti-Semites.”
But what had Levermore of the Climate of Trust Council visibly upset were the yokel-like Third World stereotypes “Borat” passed off as life in Kazakhstan.
“This just shows American stupidity and ignorance. It reinforces the notion that the rest of the world is just a bunch of boors,” she said. “Do you think anybody cares where Kazakhstan is? Do you think anybody walks out of that movie wondering if maybe they’re different” from the film’s presentation?
Yet while Levermore believed some viewers might take Borat at face value when he shows off his Kazakh home and we notice an ox grazing in the living room or introduces us to the village rapist, film critic Fox disagreed.
If a viewer didn’t understand that Cohen is an actor and the image of Kazakhstan he presents is totally fictional, Fox said, they would have missed the central conceit of the film — that a performer is behaving insanely and normal people take him seriously, often confessing their intolerance and bigotry along the way.
That’s no consolation for Levermore.
“Now we have an image of hovels and the way people live. There is nothing redeeming about this movie at all. It’s like laughing at farts. There’s nothing redeeming about it.”
The rabbi, however, noted that making a “redeeming” film wasn’t Cohen’s job. Making a funny one was — and he did.
“I’m sad for Pnina, and I’m sad this will be so deeply troubling for some people. But at the same time, I’m laughing. I guess it’s a guilty pleasure, literally. I thought a lot was funny even though I admit it’s deeply offensive,” he said.
“It’s too high an expectation to set that it has to do something for society. There were elements of good comedy in there.”
Bloom said he wished Cohen had created a fictional nation — like in the old “Mission: Impossible” series or Kreplachistan of the “Austin Powers” films. But he acknowledged that politicos such as Republicans Bob Barr and Alan Keyes (both effectively duped in this film, big-time) may not have thought Borat was real without the name recognition Kazakhstan brings.
The rabbi compared Borat to the “shlemiel genre” of literature penned by Jewish writers such as Sholom Aleichem, in which a social misfit attempts to interact with regular folks and hilarity ensues.
Fox, meanwhile, likened Borat to Jewish country singer (and current Texas gubernatorial candidate) Kinky Friedman. When Friedman sang an ostensibly humorous song about Charlie Whitman, the Texas tower shooter, “you’d laugh and then catch yourself asking what you’re laughing about, and cause some self-reflection. What is fit or not fit for a joke? And what is [Cohen] saying about the perception of Jews in this country?”
Bloom felt the real butts of Cohen’s joke weren’t Kazakhs but Americans. Scenes poking fun at rodeo crowds, Mississippi newsmen, gun-store owners and, most of all, tongue-lashing, writhing crowds at a Pentecostal prayer revival make this a “blue state/red state” movie. The racist, anti-Semitic South Carolina frat boys and religious extremists Cohen met will also fit right into European perceptions of America; this may well be a film that tickles Lars von Trier.
And while Cohen played fast and loose with stereotypes about Jews that only a gutter bigot could possibly hold, he mocked the Pentecostals in the act of glorifying God.
“If anything, this film is far more offensive to Christians than it is to Jews. It’s certainly not my religion, but he made those Pentecostals look like idiots. He completely played with them, and there was valid spirituality there at the same time. I felt bad in that scene, but it was also funny,” admitted Bloom.
In short, concerns that the film will foster anti-Semitism seem ill founded. If overtly bigoted people were to attend “Borat,” odds are they’d quickly realize it is a film burying their views, not praising them. After all, you didn’t exactly see large numbers of neo-Nazis heading to “The Blues Brothers,” did you?
The main question, then, isn’t whether you can handle the Jewish jokes, but whether you can handle, say, an extended nude wrestling scene involving Borat and the alarmingly overweight Azamat, culminating in the oddest event ever witnessed at a Southern mortgage brokers’ convention, ever.
“Yeah, I laughed when his big, fat producer jumped on him,” said Fox with a chuckle.
Bloom, however, hid behind his Raisinettes for that scene.
“Truthfully, the only scene that shocked me was the naked wrestling. I couldn’t even watch it, it was so disgusting. I know it was supposed to be funny and the idea was funny. But I couldn’t watch it. I couldn’t stomach it.”
Michael Fox’s review of “Borat” will appear in next week’s j., just before the film opens Nov. 3 in the Bay Area.