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Sacha Baron Cohen’s films have proved wild and eye-opening time and time again. While creating his most prominent characters in the 1990s, the actor and comedian kickstarted his iconic filmography in 2002 with Ali G. Indahouse. Since then, Baron Cohen has written, produced and starred in films that, despite their extreme characters and plots, are all commonly laced with political commentary and satire. His latest instalment, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, is yet another comedy that explores several political issues.
This article looks at some of Sacha Baron Cohen’s most prominent work, exploring whether the political satire transgressing these films is in fact mere satire, or if it can qualify as political activism. Where Sacha assumes the role of activist, what exactly does he contribute to politics through his films?
If you are unfamiliar with some of Sacha Baron Cohen’s early skits, the first Borat film introduces the character of Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev, who travels to the United States of America to learn about American culture. Set against the context of the US’ War in Iraq, also termed the War on Terror, and shot only a few years after 9/11, the film explores American attitudes to foreigners and those perceived as not American. While Sacha Baron Cohen’s interpretation of a foreigner in the US is extreme, conceiving bizarre cultural differences and expressing the character’s own racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic views along the way, his performance successfully elicits concrete feelings and attitudes from the Americans he encounters.
Throughout the film, Borat learns how to act, speak and engage with other Americans through various experiences like comedy training, a feminist meeting, and a dinner on etiquette. However, the most significant and arguably most shocking moment of schooling took place during Borat’s visit to a rodeo in Tennessee. Here, Borat is lectured by rodeo producer Bobby Rowe on how he must appear less Muslim, or less terrorist. These labels are used interchangeably by Rower throughout the conversation. With the latter, Rowe reveals the prejudices he carries when he sees a Muslim, wondering “what kind of a bomb he’s got strapped on him”. The conversation moves swiftly to the topic of homosexuality, with the rodeo producer implying they should be killed. Later when Borat delivers a speech at the rodeo, he receives a rousing applause as he tells the crowd his country supports the War on Terror and declares that George Bush should “drink the blood of every single man, woman, and child of Iraq”.
This critical moment in the film begins to reveal the hostile attitudes held by some Americans to foreigners, or those they perceive as outsiders, particularly Muslims. Bobby Rowe’s mention of the War on Terror in his conversation with Borat, along with the crowd’s boisterous response to Borat’s speech, reveal that the hostility, and the prejudices that come with it, are upheld by the film’s context: the US’ War in Iraq. Sacha Baron Cohen highlights the prevailing narratives surrounding the US’ involvement in the War, and reveals the prejudices and widespread sense of threat stemming from such narratives. Borat ultimately shows how public opinion can be manipulated to uphold the justifications for a foreign policy action.
Centred around the character of a homosexual Austrian fashion reporter trying to attain fame in the United States, the film Brüno explores attitudes towards homosexuality in the US, and the homophobia that often stems from these attitudes. The film takes us through topics like same-sex parenthood, same-sex marriage, homosexual conversion therapy and stereotypes based on sexual orientation. Even when not directly confronted, these themes prevail in the film’s backdrop: American society. A subtle yet telling moment saw Brüno and Lutz pass a group of protestors bearing signs with the statements ‘God hates fags’ and ‘Fags are worthy of death’, among others. A more overt situation in the film occurred when Brüno and Lutz began a love scene during a cage match in Arkansas. This led to an aggressive reaction from the audience very quickly.
Similar to the nature of revelations in Borat, Brüno highlights the different levels of social reception to homosexuality, and the way this can lead to homophobia. Sacha Baron Cohen has later explained the “violent potential of homophobia” that the cage match scene in Arkansas exposes. Brüno is therefore equally powerful to Borat in its focus on the negative attitudes to sexual orientation still encased in the American culture, and the way these can often become dangerous. The more subtle moments in the film, like the appearance of the homophobic protestors, are significant in their ability to shock viewers, despite how ordinary their position in American culture may seem. It is arguable that Sacha Baron Cohen is demonstrating political activism in the inclusion of such scenes, as he is essentially asking the audience: Should this be normal?
Aside from the issues of homosexuality and homophobia, one of the more outlandish situations in the film are Brüno’s efforts to establish peace between Israel and Palestine. While he’s hosting talks between Israeli ex-Mossad Chief Yossi Alpher and former Palestinian Minister Ghassan Khatib, as well as Professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Avraham Sela and Palestinian Governor of Jerusalem Adnan al-Husseini, Brüno misdirects the respective discussions to irrelevant topics, to ultimately get nowhere.
Other than Sela’s affirmation that the conflict is about “gaining something for your own people”, the discussions reveal northing more from each side. The fact that Brüno urges a quick solution reveals his ignorance to the longstanding and insoluble nature of the conflict. It is fair to suggest this scene serves a comedic purpose only; the discussion does not contribute to politics in any manner. However, Sacha Baron Cohen does shine a light on the political issue, potentially magnifying its significance considering the bizarre storyline it is placed in.
THE DICTATOR (2012)
Unlike Borat and Brüno, The Dictator is not a documentary. Hailing from fictitious Wadiya, the character of Admiral General Aladeen provides an over-the-top image of a North African leader as he fights to reclaim his dictatorship. The film provides many satirical political references, however, the most notable remark takes place at the end. Ahead of signing a new democracy-enabling constitution for Wadiya, Aladeen gives a speech on democracy versus dictatorship.
Firstly, he cites that bringing democracy to Wadiya would become a “licence for oil companies and foreign interests” to destroy it. This echoes a common accusation that foreign interests aiming to ‘revolutionize’ the Middle East merely create channels for further intervention and profit. As the character is compared to late Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, so are the global efforts in the film to bring democracy to Wadiya, as real life efforts tried in Libya.
Aladeen then asks the audience to imagine America as a dictatorship, proceeding to list the elements that would constitute a dictatorship but are already found in the US. His examples include letting the top 1% retain all of the nation’s wealth; having one family control the nation’s media, which otherwise appears free; having the ability to torture foreign prisoners; and filling prisons with one particular racial group. Aladeen’s speech is laced with irony that compels the audience to question how democratic America, and other democracies, actually are. This can be taken as bordering political activism, yet still remaining in the area of political commentary.
Although Sacha Baron Cohen asks the audience to bear these elements in mind, he does not call for any direct changes as Aladeen’s speech is concluded by listing the positive aspects of democracy, settling on the idea that democracy is not perfect but still good.
BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM (2020)
The sequel to Borat changes course from the first film as it delves deeper into America’s internal politics, rather than attitudes to the outside and the other. While still exploring common themes of religion, feminism and racial issues, the film centres on its context of Trump’s America and the first months of the Coronavirus pandemic. Although the film is most recognized for a scene in which Borat’s daughter Tutar interviews Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, stirring debate on how appropriately Giuliani acted in the interview, it deserves equal attention for its exploration of American party politics and attitudes surrounding Covid-19.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm explores the contemporary and contentious issue of fact versus fiction, focusing specifically on conspiracy theories and the role played by social media and party politics in propelling such theories. A particular scene in the film depicts an argument between Borat and Tutar over the conspiracy theories he has been feeding her, during which she claims to have found “a new book which only tells the truth, it’s called Facebook”. Tutar declares that Facebook teaches her facts like the Holocaust having never taken place, showing a Facebook post in which this is stated. An unscripted moment, however, occurs during Borat’s conversation with two Republican men who tell him Democrats are more dangerous than Coronavirus and claim to have heard that Hillary Clinton murders children and drinks their blood. Furthermore, when performing a song at an event for Republican supporters, Borat elicits cheers from the crowd when he sings “Corona is a liberal hoax” and that scientists should be fed to the bears.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s deliberate inclusion of the scene discussing Facebook is a clear form of political activism. It complements the comedian’s personal campaign to strengthen social media regulations surrounding free speech and the sharing of conspiracy theories. Through the film and through his personal expressions, he highlights the dangerous potential of fake news. Borat’s conversation with the two Republicans, along with the response he receives for his song, reinforce the film’s mission to ask the audience to consider how such opinions on facts and fictions are influenced, how they are consequently expressed, and the possible threat of spreading such opinions.
Sacha Baron Cohen has also lent his voice to projects like the Trial of the Chicago 7. This Aaron Sorkin film depicts the true story of the 1969 Chicago 7 Trial in which several anti-Vietnam War groups were convicted of conspiracy to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. As well as being an associate producer on the film, Sacha Baron Cohen plays Abbie Hoffman, who led the Youth International Party with Jerry Rubin.
The Party played a crucial role in organising the anti-Vietnam War protest, for which the pair were convicted, alongside several other groups. The film illustrates the numerous injustices faced by the groups during the trial, and particularly the racial discrimination faced by national chairman of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale. Released in the same year as the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, the film closely mirrors current political contexts. It can be taken as an accompaniment to today’s activist movements, as it brings attention to the injustices faced over 50 years ago – the same injustices prevailing today.
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