Rapists, racists and murderous Jewish people have one thing in common: They aren’t funny, said ethnic studies instructor Julie Sullivan said at a Thursday night panel discussion of the movie “Borat.”
To her horror, the movie covered all of the above within the first few minutes.
“I was just sitting there going, ‘Oh my God,'” Sullivan said. “If I hadn’t been talked into this panel, I would have walked out at he two- or three-minute mark, just on principle.”
Despite Sullivan’s disgust for the smash-hit comedy and Kazakh students’ claims that the movie completely misrepresented their country, associate journalism professor Pete Seel defended the flick.
“There’s something in this film to offend everyone,” Seel said, adding he laughed the whole way through. “Good art is always pushing you beyond your comfort zone, and this is art.”
The 84-minute movie, whose full title is “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” has received mixed reviews. In the movie, Cambridge-educated British actor Sacha Baron Cohen stars as Borat Sagdiyev, a racist, sexist, anti-Semitic Kazakh journalist trying to capture American culture.
The movie falls under the “mockumentary” genre – essentially, a fictional documentary. What sets this apart from most classic mockumentaries, though, is that most of the people who appear in the film weren’t actors. They were duped into believing they were going to be filmed in a real documentary.
The Anti-Defamation League released a statement saying it didn’t believe there was any malice on Cohen’s part – he’s a devout Jew.
“We are concerned, however, that one serious pitfall is that the audience may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke, and that some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry,” according to a written statement from the ADL. “While Mr. Cohen’s brand of humor may be tasteless and even offensive to some, we understand that the intent is to dash stereotypes, not to perpetuate them.”
The ADL also criticized Cohen for wrongfully painting Kazakhstan as a portrait of backwardness rather than creating a fictional country.
Kazakhstan is an Asian country that rose to power along the Silk Road, a trade route that connected eastern and western Eurasian civilizations between the eighth and 12th centuries. Today, the nation has metropolitan cities, one of which hosts a worldwide religious summit, the Religious Congress.
Several Kazakh students, including a panelist, said that the nation is far from anti-Semitic.
“I’m not offended,” said Shamil Assylbekov, a CSU physics doctoral student from Kazakhstan who served as a panelist. “How can I be offended by something stupid?”
He said he laughed, but ultimately felt the movie wasn’t funny overall. Friends of his in Kazakhstan were much angrier about it, he said.
Seel said that the movie was most offensive to Americans, and that the filmmakers were probably very selective about what they showed.
“We don’t know what’s on the cutting room floor,” Seel said. “You didn’t see people saying (in the movie to “Borat”), ‘You’re crazy,’ or ‘You’re sexist,’ or ‘You’re racist.'”
Sullivan said that whether or not it’s funny, the film has potential to do real harm. TV shows and movies with even absurdly racist characters tend to reinforce the beliefs of actual bigots, she said.
“I think comedy has a place,” Sullivan said. “But I find no redeeming comedy in this film.”
Some students disagreed, saying that the movie has created a much-needed stir.
“It’s because people are pissed,” said Caroline Colt, a senior fashion design major. “But that’s what it takes sometimes.”
Brandon Lowrey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.