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  • "A Documentary-Style Film":Borat and the Fiction/Nonfiction Question
  • Lewis MacLeod (bio)

"The literary reader … and a fortiori the literary critic, are not particularly interested in the truth value of a literary text, or the ontological status of the literary referent."

—Anna Whiteside, "Theories of Reference" (175)

"The ontological question (what is real?) … dominates all other basic questions in our society."

—Siegfried J. Schmidt, "Beyond Reality and Fiction" (91)

The bizarre ontological position of Sacha Baron Cohen's film, Borat, is amply demonstrated by the fact that Baron Cohen won a Golden Globe award for best actor for his performance in the movie, while the vast majority of his "co-stars" signed standard consent agreements to appear as themselves in "a documentary-style film" (Twentieth Century Fox). If I've got this logic right, Baron Cohen was recognized for his exceptional and comprehensive ability to become someone other than himself, his ability to "act" out a fictional identity, while the people he shares the screen with were—and are—"real" historical subjects. If you've seen Borat, it's not hard to understand the degree to which the film puts the seemingly polarized categories of "documentary" and "fiction" under pressure. What's harder to unpack, I think, is the nature of this pressure and its implications, both for those involved with the movie and for those, like me, who are interested in the ontological and/or functional distinctions between fictional and nonfictional discourses.

In one sense, the simultaneousness of the movie's excessive, caricaturish fictionality and its documentary dimension might signal Baudrillard's murder of the real, the degree to which the real and the fictional have become interchangeable, and, consequently, [End Page 111] the pointlessness of differentiating between the two. The fact that "real" people have sincere and (for them) un-ironic exchanges with a "pretend" narrative construction might well demonstrate what Zygmunt Bauman calls the "weak, slack and under-powered institutionalization of differences" produced by postmodernity (123). Still, the outcry the movie has produced (its capacity to generate lawsuits, influence international relations, invite and refute charges of racism and anti-Semitism, etc.) seems to suggest that, far from reinforcing Lyotard's "anything goes" notion of postmodernity (76), the film works to highlight a continuing anxiety about what reality might mean under a perhaps underpowered and underinstitutionalized, but still operational, preoccupation with truth and falsity. Indeed, Borat's documentary dimension might well be part of what Linda Williams calls "a new hunger for reality on the part of a public seemingly saturated with Hollywood fiction" (62). I think Linda Hutcheon has it right when she says the situation is "not that truth and reference have ceased to exist [but rather] that they have ceased to be unproblematic issues" (Poetics 223).

Here, I'd like to investigate the nature of fact, fiction, truth, and reference in Borat, as well as suggest some ways we might account for the film's puzzling ontological position. The argument has two major phases. The first section deals primarily with Borat (the character) and his relationships with what I'm calling his addressees, the "real" people he encounters. This section has three main parts and examines the various cases for the ontological differentiations between Borat and the people he encounters. The second major section also has three main parts and broadens the discussion to examine Borat (the movie) and its relationship with its implied audience. In this section, the ontological implications of irony are of particular importance. In Borat, I'd like to suggest, the success and/or failure of irony is central to both the addressees' and the implied audience's ontological categorization of Borat, with the result that the sincerity test we generally associate with irony simultaneously becomes a reality test. Ultimately, I'd like to argue that, while Borat obviously and outlandishly flirts with hyperreality, both its production and reception depend on documentary as a "discourse of sobriety" (Nichols 39), as a solid ground from which fiction departs and to which, after several complicated detours, it returns. In the end, Borat posits not a "model of a real without origin" (Baudrillard 2), but a complex and often contradictory invocation of both...


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