The giant mustache, the mesh underwear, the car dragged by mules, the wine made of fermented horse urine--sure, it seems as if comedian Sacha Baron Cohen is mocking Kazakhstan. He is not. He's mocking you. After all, you're the idiot who doesn't know where Kazakhstan is or if it's the kind of place where, as Borat claims, there's a "Running of the Jews." And more important, you're the idiot who believes so much in cultural relativism that you'll nod politely when a guy tells you that in his country they keep developmentally disabled people in cages. Or, worse yet, you're the person who tells him it's not a bad idea.
That's Baron Cohen's awesome trick: preying on the fear, fascination and, most of all, patronization of the other--the foreigner, the rapper, the gay guy. For the trick to work, we have to believe that other countries are so inferior, it's plausible that their citizens would wash their faces in the toilet. He's been exploiting this by videotaping the reaction of unsuspecting people to his characters' horrifying behavior since 1998, when he started on England's short-lived The 11 o'Clock Show, and later on HBO's Da Ali G Show. His characters--aspiring rapper Ali G, gay Austrian fashionista Brüno and Borat Sagdiyev, the U.S.-loving Kazakh--get away with astonishing rudeness because people are too weirded out by youth culture, flaming gay guys and foreigners to question them. When one of his guises gets too famous to sucker people into being interviewed, he molds himself into another one. He could be any outsider society avoids by giving a pass--a religious freak, a veteran, an old man. "Ali G played on people's ability to think that young people are so different from them they wouldn't recognize absolute stupidity and the fact that they were being made fun of," says Andrew Newman, a writer and producer on The 11 o'Clock Show. "And now Borat does the same thing but with countries they haven't heard much about."
In his new unscripted film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Baron Cohen takes his interactions with real people and strings them into a plot: a mockumentary about American culture gets sidetracked by a cross-country quest to meet and "make sexy time" with Pamela Anderson. Along the way, the hidden cameras capture a Southern dinner party's dismay with Borat's bathroom habits, and the guests' reaction on the arrival of his date--a black hooker. All the marks are unaware they're being fooled, which is hard to believe, especially when a gun dealer responds to the question "What kind of a gun would you recommend to kill a Jew?" with a nonchalant "I'd recommend a 9-mm or a Glock automatic." (Baron Cohen is Jewish.) The detailed legal releases, which it seems no one ever reads, were presented to people as if they were permission forms for being interviewed by a Kazakh TV show.