"It was a comedy—not a documentary."
The trailer for Borat. NICE!
Ten years ago, Sacha Baron Cohen brought Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan into the world. The mockumentary-cum-comedy, which follows Cohen's hapless Kazakhstani reporter alter ego Borat Sagdiyev on a caustic and absurd odyssey through the US, produced some objectively stupid gross-out jokes and slapstick and birthed a thousand oft-repeated (and occasionally problematic) copycat attempts and memes.
Its somewhat controversial tact of luring Americans into embarrassing themselves through the lens of Borat's casual idiocy and bigotry also wowed critics and audiences, allowing Cohen to break through into mass American culture beyond the reach of his HBO comedy show Da Ali G Show. But one entity famously hated Cohen's opus when it came out: the nation of Kazakhstan.
In the rearview, it's easy to see why Kazakhstan found Borat insulting. The film's Kazakhstani scenes were shot in a grubby Romanian town; the title character's "Kazakh" speech was a mix of Hebrew and Polish slang and gibberish; and almost every detail the film presented about the country was a complete and unflattering fabrication. Even though one could argue Borat was satire that played on Americans' ignorance regarding the Central Asian republic, some critics chided Cohen for punching down in his portrayal of the country.
Specificially, Kazaks didn't appreciate the fact that Cohen was blithely filling a void of ignorance with an over-the-top image of their country as a dirt-poor, rabidly anti-Semitic, and misogynistic shithole known for exporting young boys to Michael Jackson's ranch, producing 300 tons of pubic hair a year, and shooting dogs for sport.
So over the course of 2005 and 2006, Kazakhstan went HAM on Cohen. In the days leading up to and following Borat's release, the Kazakh government hired two PR firms and took out ads in the New York Times, US News and World Report, and on CNN to show the public the real Kazakhstan. Some ads were framed as unrelated to the film, while others were explicit about using the film as a jumping-off point for educating the public.
It quickly became clear, though, that bigwigs in Kazakhstan's capital Astana were pissed off. In 2005, the Kazakhstani foreign ministry reportedly floated the notion that Borat was part of a foreign plot to assassinate the country's character; the following year, the state banned the movie's website from its .kz domain, threatened to sue Cohen, and considered banning the film entirely.
Kazakhstan's tense relationship with Borat continued into the following decade. In 2010, a local member of parliament claimed the film had permanently smeared the country's reputation abroad and hurt Kazakhstanis around the world—some of whom have actually gotten into fights over Cohen-originated stereotypes cast at them. In 2012, a Kazakhstani athlete stood stone-faced on a gold-medal podium following a competition in Kuwait as organizers played Borat's Kazakhstani national anthem instead of the country's actual national anthem.
Multiple Kazakhstani filmmakers have framed projects as answers to Borat, too—including an unauthorized 2010 sequel My Brother, Borat, which ham fistedly attempts to subvert the stereotypes expressed in Cohen's film. Then, after years of low-key resentment, Kazakhstan's then foreign minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov told politicians in 2012 that the film contributed to a tenfold increase in tourism to the nation—and that he was grateful to the film as a result.
Ten years is a big anniversary for any film, but it amounts to practically a lifetime for Kazakhstan, which celebrates its 25th independence day in December. The nation's been under the leadership of president Nursultan Nazarbayev since breaking out of the Soviet Union in 1991, with a boom that's resulted in economic and cultural transformations. Kazakhstan's shed some of its Kremlin-indebted paranoia and developed confidence and recognition on the international stage, so it only follows that its view of Borat has softened a bit.
"We are a proud nation," Aisha Mukasheva, a spokesperson for the Embassy of Kazakhstan in the United States, says. "In our 25 years of independence, we have a lot to be proud of: nuclear disarmament, our economic development, and our growing role on the world stage." In clipped but direct speech, Mukasheva says Kazakhstan harbors no ill will toward the film today, explaining away any individuals' tensions in recent years as equivalent to the irk an Englishman might feel at being equated to Mr. Bean. "It was a comedy—not a documentary," she says while explaining the nation's current position toward the film.
Mukasheva shares Kazykhanov's previously stated view that Borat gave Kazakhstan a useful media jolt and increased tourism—but not necessarily in the long-term. She claims the film comes up increasingly less in conversation with foreigners, and insists that Kazakhstan is better known to tourists for its skiing, hiking, and scenery today than for the film. Ultimately, she seems to hint that, ten years after the film's release, it isn't really worth discussing Borat in relation to Kazakhstan.
"Now, people are more likely to associate our country with champion boxer Gennady Golovkin than Mr. Baron Cohen," she claims. "And I think Kazakhstanis have better things to talk about [among ourselves] than a film that came out a decade ago!"
Kazakhstan's take on Borat in 2016 is hard to square with the level of indignation it displayed in 2006 and beyond—but it makes sense if you ascribe human aspects to the young nation. Today's Kazakhstan seemingly possesses the developmental self-assurance and stability to focus on building its reputation and legacy through measured self-promotion, instead of lashing out at fictitious characters that use the country as the cheap butt of jokes for audiences that know nothing about the country itself.
"If we learned anything from the release of Mr. Baron Cohen's film," says Mukasheva. "It is that we should be sharing the pride in what it really means to be a Kazakh far more widely."
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