In both the original Borat film and its sequel (out this week), Kazakhstan is hardly portrayed in flattering terms. Sacha Baron Cohen depicts the central Asian country as a racist, misogynistic and homophobic backwater, where people live in corrugated iron shacks and drink horse urine.
Despite these unfavourable associations, Kazakhstan has adopted Borat’s catchphrase, “Very Nice!”, for a series of short video adverts which seek to counter some of the stereotypes put forward by the film franchise.
The adverts show tourists drinking fermented horse milk (exclaiming “actually very nice!”), posing for pictures with people in traditional Kazakh clothing, enjoying mountain scenes and marvelling at the gleaming modern architecture of Almaty, the country’s largest city.
The campaign is actually quite clever: Borat and Kazakhstan are now so inextricably linked in the popular imagination that it makes sense to tackle the connection head-on. Tourism did increase significantly following the release of the first film, so why not capitalise on the sequel? But equally, it feels kind of sad that Kazakhstan has been forced to endorse a film series which many critics have argued offers a racist portrayal of the country.
It was reportedly an American man, Dennis Keen (who first visited the country on a student exchange trip in 2006, and now works as a tour guide in Almaty) who came up with the idea. Perhaps surprisingly, it was met with an enthusiastic reaction from the country’s tourist board.
Speaking to the Huffington Post, its deputy chairman said the campaign “offers the perfect description of Kazakhstan’s vast tourism potential in a short, memorable way. Kazakhstan’s nature is very nice; its food is very nice; and its people, despite Borat’s jokes to the contrary, are some of the nicest in the world. We would like everyone to come experience Kazakhstan for themselves by visiting our country in 2021 and beyond, so that they can see that Borat’s homeland is nicer than they may have heard.”
The reaction to the first Borat from the Kazakhstan state was nowhere near as welcoming. The government banned the film, took out adverts in US newspapers disputing some of its claims and even threatened to sue Sacha Baron Cohen. This time around, plenty of people in Kazakhstan are still not happy: over 100,000 have signed an online petition calling for the sequel to be cancelled.
In an email to The New York Times, Sacha Baron Cohen wrote: “This is a comedy, and the Kazakhstan in the film has nothing to do with the real country. I chose Kazakhstan because it was a place that almost nobody in the US knew anything about, which allowed us to create a wild, comedic, fake world. The real Kazakhstan is a beautiful country with a modern, proud society – the opposite of Borat’s version.”