- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 9, 2006

I laughed and had a good time. The movie is based on the old comic formula that things unexpected and not harmful to us are funny — and the more unexpected, the funnier. “Borat” also draws on behavior promoted in Stalinist Russia, and it has been a while since Americans saw Stalinism in a humorous context. In addition to being a (vulgar) innocent abroad, Borat thrashes the Soviet system.

So far so good. But shortly after the opening night strange things began to surface. Genteel ladies from the American South and college students from the Midwest raised indignant voices. They said they had been misled. The ladies are miffed, the students are suing. They were led to believe Borat was a post-Soviet fool who wanted to learn about the United States. Instead, they were made into fools. More importantly, the village of Glod (which means hunger) in Romania, where key scenes of the movie were shot, has been incensed. Fun was made of its poverty and, on top of that, the miserable villagers were presented as brutes who practiced incest and hated foreigners.

Still, “Borat” is funny, and the producer can rightly say that in his movie not only Romanians (or Kazakhs, or the entire post-Soviet world) have been made fun of, but also Americans. Isn’t it a fair game? If we can laugh at ourselves, we have the moral right to laugh at others. The British excel at laughing at themselves.

Sasha Cohen is making fun of himself and of the Anglophone culture of which he is part, and therefore he has the moral right to take humorous advantage of the good people in the American South and in Romania.

I will leave these good American people to square their accounts with “Borat” by themselves. I want to speak for the non-American segment of the movie, the part allegedly filmed in Kazakhstan but in fact shot in the Romanian village whose name is “Hunger.”

I think many Third Worlders, and some of our own minorities, might take exception to the scenes shot in that village. The disadvantaged tend to be sensitive to other miserables being taken advantage of. They know that it makes a lot of difference whether we laugh at the upper-middle-class Yalies playing a football game with the Princetonians, or poke fun at the underclass dressed in none-too-clean shirts and who are missing front teeth.

This business of teeth has always struck me as important. A yardstick: The world can be divided into those who can afford dentists and those who cannot. The toothless crowd — and such were many of the Romanians (a k a Kazakhs) — did not know what kind of joke was being played by the uncharitable camera. If you display such people to entertain those whose teeth shine like Sasha Cohen’s, your taste for vulgarity begins to shine. It is like amusing oneself by looking at a hungry crowd from the window of a five-star restaurant.

I have seen some Western “documentaries” zeroing in on toothless peasants whose bodies had never known a shower, indeed an indoor bathroom. The well-fed and well-coiffed cameramen and directors try to demonstrate to their equally comfortable audiences that the peasants are possessed of numerous faults.

The peasants’ toothlessness and dirtiness gives subliminal credence to the documentaries’ directors — or so they hope. Perhaps some people have been fooled. In those I have seen, documentary directors kept asking the peasants questions until the dirty wretches said what the directors wanted. The point was to discredit the toothless contingent.

The same technique is used in “Borat,” except that the goal was not to condemn but to entertain. Here, the scripted questions were asked to make us laugh. But in both cases, the movie maker take advantage of their fellow men and women who understand neither the language nor the body language of the Westerners, and who behave as stupidly and coarsely as the directors wanted them to behave.

Back to the differences between laughing at those at the top and at those at the bottom. The British Comedies series came about because the society they caricatured has been well fed and secure and on the winning side, and therefore could easily afford to laugh at itself. In “Borat,” the privileged laugh at the underprivileged.

One needs no Dr. Phil to tell us there is a difference between the powerful laughing at themselves and the powerless being laughed at. Psychologically speaking, I can afford to laugh at myself when I feel secure and superior to others. This is why politicians sometimes tell self-demeaning jokes.

But things are different when the toothless become the butt of jokes. It is like shoplifting. It might feel good, but it should leave a bad taste in one’s mouth.

So I did laugh watching “Borat,” and the movie did make fun of some unwelcome relics of the Soviet period. But the Soviet-created pool of comic characters and situations is only a fraction of the movie: The rest is shoplifting. The movie made Sasha Cohen and his producers rich at the expense of, among others, the underdogs in Romania.

It shows how those already on top of the world often care not a whit for the dignity of the underdog. There is no law against it, and there should not be: But we should respond by admitting a bad taste in our mouths.

EWA THOMPSON

Editor of the East European quarterly Sarmatian Review.

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