- Cultural Learnings of Borat Make for Benefit Glorious Study of Documentary
The genre to which a film is assigned reflects how a culture understands the boundaries between perception and reality—what can be accepted on screen as true or false, right or wrong. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan ( Dir. Larry Charles, 2006), for example, has challenged our cultural assumptions by challenging our generic assumptions. Is it a documentary? A mockumentary? A narrative fiction? Most efforts to categorise the film focus on the humour, referring to it as comedy and mockumentary. But they do not account for how Borat Sagdiyev (Sacha Baron Cohen) interacts with people on screen or for his own claims that these encounters produce significant information about the world. Fictional genres always bear some degree of indexical relationship to the lived world (Sobchack 1984), and that relationship only intensifies in a traditional documentary. Borat, however, confuses the genres: a fictional TV host steps out of the mock travelogue of his fictional hometown and steps into a journey through a real America. The indexical relationship between the screen world and the real world varies, then, with almost every scene, sometimes working as fiction, sometimes as documentary, sometimes as mockumentary.
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Documentary and mockumentary practices exist simultaneously in the film. Whereas a mockumentary sheathes its fictions within a documentary style, though, Borat sheathes its documentary elements (the interviews are perfectly real to the unwitting participants) within a fiction. Generic stability is complicated further when Borat drops his initial documentary plan of tracking down actress Pamela Anderson, whom he has seen as “CJ” in the television series Baywatch. But from interviews with actual people and from news and clips of Anderson’s pornographic home video, Borat is disillusioned, believing that he now knows the true Anderson behind the mediated form on screen. One television program is thus exchanged for another, and this uneasy exchange throughout the film characterizes its unsettled nature as a genre and as a description of reality.
Borat’s fictional voyage—complete with interviews, staged encounters, and provocations—is not so distant from the documentary tradition, which has been on shaky ontological and epistemological ground since Auguste and Louis Lumière staged their first actualities and Robert Flaherty enlisted Allakariallak to play Nanook in Nanook of the North (1922), a re-enactment of past Inuit life. Borat bears a resemblance to a variety of documentaries—notably, to Jean Rouch’s “ethnofictions” and hoax documentaries. It also suggests the modes of documentary Bill Nichols has called “reflexive” and “performative” for the way they question documentary authority, disorient the audience, and ask us to reconsider the premises that underpin the documentary’s claim to truth and knowledge ( Nichols 1994). The film just as readily invokes Stella Bruzzi’s “performative documentary” for its emphasis on performative elements of both the filmmaker and the subjects (2006). [End Page 53]
However, as a mockumentary and a documentary of a mockumentary, and even a fake mockumentary, the film continually retreats behind layer upon layer of reference—in an interrogation of American bigotry (Strauss 2006) that recursively implicates the media itself. He elicits damning information, for example, by staging an inter-cultural encounter between the American (Western) subjects and the racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, and socially ignorant Borat, the caricature of the Eastern foreigner, a modern-day Other. Sam Ali of the Newark Star-Ledger has expressed concern that this construction of the foreigner is dangerous to Muslims. In spite of Baron Cohen’s (and Borat’s) denial of any Muslim identity, Ali declares that Kazakhstan’s predominantly Muslim population, combined with Borat’s anti-Semitism and misogyny, is enough to cast Borat as Muslim in the American imagination. A fair enough point: Borat’s rehearsals of Occidental xenophobia feed a stereotype. But they also clearly expose bigotries behind the rhetoric of enlightenment and equality. In this latter regard, the film may accomplish more than Baron Cohen set out to do. The performances do more than “let people lower their guard and expose their own prejudice,” as Baron Cohen has explained. The meeting of “primitive” and “modern” subjects...