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New Borat Film Offends, But Will More Kazakhs Get The Joke This Time?

Sacha Baron Cohen (left) and Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova joke around in character with U.S. talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel to promote the new Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.

NUR-SULTAN -- Unlike his best-known alter ego, Borat Sagdiyev, British-born comedian Sacha Baron Cohen isn't in it to win friends.

Not among religious and cultural conservatives. Not among the political elite in the United States. (Just ask Donald Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.) And certainly not within the Kazakh government.

But Borat -- the coarse "Kazakh journalist" introduced to global movie audiences 14 years ago – has constantly tried to ingratiate himself to American strangers: winking asides about spouses (his own and theirs); soliciting taboos; and making puerile references to bodily functions.

Cohen's aim has been to elicit a bemused but unsettling tolerance for intolerance with nearly all of his satirical characters, from Borat to Ali G. to Bruno and The Dictator.

The result in 2006 was a surprising critical and box-office success for Cohen's full-length mockumentary, Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan.

Although Cohen was mostly lampooning U.S. society, the casual depiction of a boorish "Kazakh" and his homeland as a hapless prop offended many Kazakhs.

The first Borat film prompted bans and threats of international legal action from infuriated officials in the former Soviet republic in Central Asia.

Now that Cohen's back with a new Borat film, which premieres online on October 23, is it once again time to cue the outrage?

In Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city, student Fariza Abdraimova told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that she recognizes the Borat films aren't really targeting her country at all, but rather Americans.

"I think that first you need to carefully review the first film and, in the end, understand that apart from the name of the country, Borat has nothing at all to do with Kazakhstan," Abdraimova says. "This is a parody of American society."

Quiz: How Much Do You Really Know About Kazakhstan?

Quiz: How Much Do You Really Know About Kazakhstan?

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Still, Abdraimova says, that doesn't mean the new Borat film might not expose some weaknesses in Kazakh society, too.

She asks: "How weak are our citizens if it is so easy to hurt their feelings?"

Adbraimova cited a low-budget U.S. comedy from 2004 called EuroTrip that depicted Slovakia pretty "harshly” but elicited little reaction from Slovaks or anyone else.

"Everyone understands perfectly well that in comedy, everything is deliberately taken to absurdity,” she says.

'Cancel Borat' Petitions

Not all Kazakhs want to be a part of the joke.

While the Kazakh government didn't explicitly ban the first Borat film, it discouraged screenings.

And that was effectively the same as a ban under then-President Nursultan Nazarbaev's tightly controlled post-Soviet system.

Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen says his aim has been to elicit a bemused but unsettling tolerance for intolerance with nearly all of his satirical characters.
Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen says his aim has been to elicit a bemused but unsettling tolerance for intolerance with nearly all of his satirical characters.

The Russian government did the same, and Borat was officially prohibited throughout much of the Arab world due to its bawdy scenes.

Petitions have been circulating for weeks in Kazakh and Russian against the distribution of the sequel, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery Of Prodigious Bride To American Regime For Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan.

One petition -- titled Why 'Borat 2' Should Be Canceled -- attracted nearly 108,000 signatures ahead of the film’s October 23 release.

"This movie is full of racism and xenophobia," the petition argues, presumably basing its assessment on trailers and prerelease publicity.

"They completely desecrate and humiliate Kazakhstan and the dignity of the Kazakh nation,” it says. “In addition, the footage from this film absolutely does not correspond to reality.

"If only the film had been made about a country that the author himself invented," the petition says. "But no, this movie makes fun of a real country where real people live."

#CancelBorat and #StopBorat hashtag campaigns have emerged in Kazakh and Russian, in addition to a #WhereBoratLives effort that seeks to show off Kazakhstan's untamed beauty.

Hours before the global premiere of the new film on October 23, a small group of Kazakh protesters gathered in front of the U.S. Consulate in Almaty to express anger about Borat 2.

Claiming the film "insulted the Kazakh nation and tarnished the country's image,” they demanded it be banned in Kazakhstan and called on the United States to "take strict measures" and apologize to the Kazakh people.

Hours before the premiere of the new Borat film, a small group of Kazakh protesters gathered in front of the U.S. Consulate in Almaty to express anger.
Hours before the premiere of the new Borat film, a small group of Kazakh protesters gathered in front of the U.S. Consulate in Almaty to express anger.

U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan William Moser already has taken time out from his more familiar diplomatic messaging -- like urging Kazakhstan to work harder against human trafficking and to "stand up for" Uyghurs and other persecuted minorities from China's neighboring Xinjiang Province -- to try to preempt any ill will caused by Borat 2.

During an appearance on Kazakh state TV last week, Moser reminded Kazakhs: "It's just a movie."

"People go to the movies, watch it, and that's it," he said, adding that personal contacts and experiences with actual Kazakhs do more to shape long-term impressions of the country.

Like Old Times

The first Borat film depicted the fictitious journalist leaving Kazakhstan on the orders of the Ministry of Information to make a documentary about the United States.

It included brief footage from Romania that purported to show Borat’s home village in Kazakhstan.

The film repeatedly suggested that depravity and anti-Semitism are deeply rooted in Kazakh culture.

Once in America, Borat ad-libbed a parody "national anthem" that mocked Kazakhstan -- touting its "cleanest" prostitutes and celebrating the genitalia of "our leader."

A fictional map of Kazakhstan from Borat.
A fictional map of Kazakhstan from Borat.

Nazarbaev, Kazakhstan’s longtime president at the time, was frequently an explicit target. Nazarbaev still has the official title of “leader of the nation,” although he stepped down from the presidency in 2019 after nearly 29 years.

A relatively unknown actor, Romanian Dani Popescu, portrays Nazarbaev in the new Borat film.

But despite Kazakhstan's top billing, the real goal of Cohen's pranks is once again to produce a savage commentary on American society.

Inasmuch as the new film extends beyond simply providing a platform for Cohen's carefully orchestrated pranks, the plot has a disgraced Borat summoned by a jealous "Premier Nazarbayev" to deliver a "bribe" -- mistakenly understood by Borat as a "bride" -- to "McDonald Trump."

As Borat, Cohen crashed a real conservative conference in a mock effort to give away his teen daughter to Trump via Vice President Mike Pence.

Borat’s daughter is portrayed by a relatively unknown Bulgarian actress, Maria Bakalova.

Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova
Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova

One young Almaty resident who identified herself as Ayzhan told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that she was able to watch the first Borat film in Kazakhstan despite the informal ban.

She said she was "amazed." But her amazement had nothing to do with Kazakhs.

"Goodness, are the Americans really as narrow-minded as Cohen portrayed them here?" she remembered thinking.

Ayzhan said she was "surprised" at the indignant reaction of her friends to the first Borat film, which included petition drives to ensure it would not be screened around the country.

Now, she says she is "offended" that petitions on more serious issues like violence against women don't attract as many signatures as protests against the screening of a simple comedy.

'Not A Real Kazakh'

During a promotional appearance for his new Borat film, Cohen was introduced in character on late-night U.S. television this week as a "celebrated Kazakh journalist."

Cohen then took talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel through a misguided series of COVID-19 tests, pretending to spot the coronavirus with a magnifying glass and swat it with a frying pan.

"Kazakhstan intelligence services have make discovery this morning that there is a virus," he told Kimmel, before engaging in Borat's trademark anti-Semitism.

Cohen is Jewish.

"It come from a place called Wuhan, which is in Israel. There is no surprise. They are spreading everything,” Cohen said in character.

In September, a bogus @KazakhstanGovt Twitter account appeared under the handle "Republic of Kazakhstan" to promote the film.

Its tweets have targeted a fictitious Kazakh administration in addition to mocking U.S. partisanship.

It also "salutes" the U.S. president for "crush (sic) COVID given to him by Democrats.”

In the case of the first Borat film, Cohen effectively leveraged Kazakh outrage into publicity.

The film was said to have cost less than $20 million to produce. It grossed $262 million worldwide and earned Cohen a Golden Globe award.

One Kazakh director, Erkin Rakishev, announced in 2010 that he was filming a celluloid riposte called My Brother, Borat because the British comic had "crossed the line."

He planned to feature a visiting American shocked to find a modern, bustling Kazakhstan. It would counter the discomfort that Rakishev said "every Kazakhstani who goes to the West" felt because "people in the West associate the country with Borat's film."

On Britain’s Jonathan Ross Show in early 2016, Cohen said Kazakhs were especially angry when he hosted the 2005 MTV Europe awards as Borat.

He described how, at one point during the MTV awards show, Borat bent to kiss the crotch of an actor portraying "Prime Minister Nazarbaev."

"They ended up spending about $30 million in a campaign to prove that they were the real Kazakhstan," Cohen said.

The Kazakh government did embark on an extensive tourism promotion campaign in the wake of the first Borat film -- although it’s unclear how much was spent.

Cohen also told Ross how he set up an elaborate fake press conference outside the Kazakh Embassy in Washington after learning the real Nazarbaev had flown to the U.S. capital "to complain to the American president" at the time, George W. Bush.

Falling into character and claiming to be “the real Kazakhstan,” Cohen repeated what "Borat" had told the assembled journalists in a conspiratorial voice: "I want to say this Sacha Cohen, this Jew comedian, is not a real Kazakh. He is controlling the media."

The Kazakh government grudgingly changed its tune six years after the first Borat film was released, crediting it with boosting tourism to the country.

Written and reported by Andy Heil with reporting from Nur-Sultan by Aigerim Toleukhanova

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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    Aigerim Toleukhanova

    Aigerim Toleukhanova​ is a correspondent in RFE/RL's Kazakh Service.