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.
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.Print