Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is a 2006 British-American mockumentary comedy film directed byLarry Charles and distributed by 20th Century Fox. The film was written and produced by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen; he also plays the title character,Borat Sagdiyev, a fictitious Kazakh journalist travelling through the United States recording real-life interactions with Americans. Much of the film features unscripted vignettes of Borat interviewing and interacting with Americans, who believe he is a foreigner with little or no understanding of American customs. It is the second of three films built around Baron Cohen's characters from Da Ali G Show (2002–04). Ali G Indahouse (2002) featured a cameo by Borat, and the third film, Brüno, was released in 2009. The film is produced by Baron Cohen's production company, Four By Two Productions. "Four By Two" is Cockney rhyming slang for "Jew".
Despite a limited initial release in the United States, the film was a critical and commercial success. Baron Cohen won the 2007 Golden Globe Award for Best Actor: Musical or Comedy, as Borat, while the film was nominated for Best Motion Picture in the same category. Borat was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 79th Academy Awards.
Controversy surrounded the film even two years prior to release, and after the film's release, some cast members spoke against, and even sued, its creators. It was banned in all Arab countries except Lebanon, and the Russian government discouraged Russian cinemas from showing it. It was released on DVD 5 March 2007 (a day later in Region 1 countries).
Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat at the 2006 Comic Con, promoting the film
Borat was previewed at the 2006 Comic-Con International in San Diego, California, on 21 July 2006. Its first screening to a paying audience was during the 2006 Traverse City Film Festival, where it won the Excellence in Filmmaking Award.
The film's official debut was in Toronto on 7 September 2006, at the Ryerson University Theatre during the Toronto International Film Festival. Sacha Baron Cohen arrived in character as Borat in a cart pulled by women dressed as peasants. Twenty minutes into the showing, however, the projector broke. Baron Cohen performed an impromptu act to keep the audience amused, but ultimately all attempts to fix the equipment failed. The film was successfully screened the following night, with Dustin Hoffman in attendance.
In Israel, a proposed poster depicting Borat in a sling bikini was rejected by the film's advertising firm in favour of one showing him in his usual suit.
Scaled-back U.S. release
In late October 2006, less than two weeks before the film's debut, 20th Century Fox scaled back its American release from about 2,000 to 800 cinemas after marketing-survey data showed unexpectedly poor levels of audience awareness, surprising industry professionals, who could not recall such a move being made so close to a film's release.Despite this move, the film opened at No. 1 in the box office, maintaining first place for two weeks straight. The film earned more in the second week ($28,269,900) than in the first ($26,455,463), due to an expansion onto 2,566 screens.
Borat had its public release on 1 November 2006, in Belgium, and by 3 November 2006, it had opened in the United States and Canada as well as 14 European countries. Upon its release it was a massive hit, taking in US$26.4 million in its opening weekend, the highest ever in the United States and Canada for a film released in fewer than 1,000 cinemas until Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert in 2008. However, its opening day (approximately $9.2 million) was larger than that of the Hannah Montana concert (approximately $8.6 million), leaving Borat with the record of the highest opening day gross for a film released in fewer than 1,000 cinemas. On its second weekend, Borat surpassed its opening with a total of US$29 million.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan was well received by critics. In an article about the changing face of comedy, The Atlantic Monthly said that it "may be the funniest film in a decade". Michael Medved gave it 3.5 out of 4 stars, calling it "...simultaneously hilarious and cringe-inducing, full of ingenious bits that you'll want to describe to your friends and then laugh all over again when you do." Rotten Tomatoes classified it as one of the best-reviewed films of 2006, with an aggregate "Certified fresh" rating of 91%.
One negative review came from American critic Joe Queenan, who went as far as to call Baron Cohen an "odious twit." In an article for Slate, writer Christopher Hitchens offered a counter-argument to suggestions of anti-Americanism in the film. Hitchens suggested instead that the film demonstrated amazing tolerance by the film's unknowing subjects, especially citing the reactions of the guests in the Southern dinner scene to Borat's behaviour.
By posting scenes from the film on YouTube, Borat was also exposed to viral communication. That triggered discussions on different national identities (Kazakh, American, Polish, Romanian, Jewish, British) that Baron Cohen had exploited creating Borat the character.
American audiences embraced the film, which played to sold-out crowds at many showings on its opening despite having been shown on only 837 screens. Borat debuted at No. 1 on its opening weekend with a total gross of $26.4 million, beating its competitors Flushed Away and The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause. The film's opening weekend's cinema average was an estimated $31,511, topping Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest yet behind Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Spider-Man. It retained the top spot in its second weekend after expanding to 2,566 theatres, extending the box office total to $67.8 million.
In the United Kingdom, Borat opened at No. 1, with an opening weekend gross of £6,242,344 ($11,935,986), the 43rd best opening week earnings in the UK as of March 2007. Since its release, Borathas grossed over $260 million worldwide.
Awards and nominations
Borat received a nomination at the 79th Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay, although the award ultimately went to The Departed. It was also nominated for a Golden Globe Award under the category of Best Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy, but lost to Dreamgirls. The Broadcast Film Critics Association named it the Best Comedy Movie of 2006, and the Writers Guild of America, westnominated it for their award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Baron Cohen won a Golden Globe for Best Actor: Musical or Comedy. He received equivalent awards from the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, the Utah Film Critics Association, the Toronto Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association tied Baron Cohen with Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland for their title of Best Actor, while the former was nominated for the title by the London Film Critics Circle.
It has been featured in multiple top 10 lists of films in 2006, including lists by the American Film Institute, Time Magazine, Rolling Stone, David Ansen for Newsweek and Lou Lumenick for the New York Post.
On 3 June 2007, Baron Cohen won the MTV Film Award for best Comedic Performance for Borat.
Retirement of Borat character
A third film by Baron Cohen was released in 2009—based on another of his characters: Brüno, a gay Austrian fashion reporter. Universal Studios is reported to have produced the film with a budget of $42 million.
Rupert Murdoch announced in early February 2007 that Baron Cohen had signed on to do another Borat film with Fox. This was contradicted, however, by an interview with Baron Cohen himself stating that Borat was to be discontinued, as he was now too well known to avoid detection as he did in the film and on Da Ali G Show. A spokesman for Fox later stated that it was too early to begin planning such a film, although they were open to the idea.
Baron Cohen subsequently announced that he was "killing off" the characters of Borat and Ali G because they were now so famous he could no longer trick people.
Before being considered for appearance in the film, all potential participants were required to sign long release forms agreeing not to take legal action for any defamation of character or fraud carried out during the film's production. The usual disclaimer included at the end of the film's credits, stating that all characters in the film were fictitious, also noted that "No real person depicted or appearing in the film has sponsored or otherwise endorsed its contents."
After the film's release, Dharma Arthur, a news producer for WAPT-TV in Jackson, Mississippi, wrote a letter to Newsweek saying that Borat's appearance on the station had led to her losing her job: "Because of him, my boss lost faith in my abilities and second-guessed everything I did thereafter … How upsetting that a man who leaves so much harm in his path is lauded as a comedic genius." Although Arthur has said she was fired from the show, she told the AP that she left the station. She claims to have checked a public relations website that Borat's producers gave her before booking him.
In news coverage that aired in January 2005 of the filming of the rodeo scene, Bobby Rowe, producer of the Salem, Virginia rodeo depicted in the film, provided background on how he had become the victim of a hoax. He said that "months" prior to the appearance, he had been approached by someone from "One America, a California-based film company that was reportedly doing a documentary on a Russian immigrant"; he agreed to permit the "immigrant" to sing the U.S. national anthem after listening to a tape. After the film's release, Rowe said "Some people come up and say, 'Hey, you made the big time'; I've made the big time, but not in the way I want it." Cindy Streit, Borat's etiquette consultant, has subsequently hired high-profile attorney Gloria Allred, who is demanding the California Attorney General investigate fraud allegedly committed by Baron Cohen and the film's producers.
There are conflicting reports regarding the feelings of the participants in the scenes in which Borat and Azamat stay at a guest house owned by a Jewish couple. The British tabloid The Sun claims that a scene depicting cockroaches running around in their home has hurt Mariam and Joseph Behar's business in Newton, Massachusetts. The couple were quoted as saying, "This is very insulting. They never told us they were going to do this. It is really terrible." However, the Salon Arts & Entertainment site quotes the Behars as calling the film "outstanding," referring to Baron Cohen as "very lovely and very polite" and a "genius". The Boston Globe also interviewed the couple, saying they considered the film more anti-Muslim than anti-Semitic and had feared that Baron Cohen and his ensemble might be filming pornography in the house.
The feminists from Veteran Feminists of America (VFA) also felt that they had been duped, having "sensed something odd was going on" before and during the interview with Borat. The Guardian later reported at least one of the women felt that the film was worth going to see at the cinema.
The New York Post had reported in November 2006 that Pamela Anderson filed for divorce from her husband Kid Rock after he reacted unfavourably to the film during a screening. The Post's article specifically claimed he had said of her role in the film, "You're nothing but a whore! You're a slut! How could you do that movie?" Anderson later confirmed in an interview on The Howard Stern Show that Rock was upset by her appearance in the film, but did not confirm this was the cause of the separation.
There has been some debate in United Pentecostal circles regarding the camp meeting's depiction in the film. United Pentecostal ministers are barred from attending mainstream films at all, and the faithful are strongly admonished against it.
Legal action by participants
The villagers of Glod, Dâmboviţa County, Romania, have taken legal action against the producers of Borat, complaining that they were lied to about the nature of the filming and they were portrayed asincestuous and ignorant. Some claimed they were paid only three lei (about US$1.28 in 2004) each, while others stated they were paid between $70 and $100 each, which did not cover their expenses.They are asking for $38 million in damages. One lawsuit was thrown out by U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska in a hearing in early December 2006 on the ground that the charges were too vague to stand up in court. The litigants said they planned to refile.
Two of the University of South Carolina fraternity brothers who appeared in the film, Justin Seay and Christopher Rotunda, sued the producers, claiming defamation. The suit by Seay and Rotunda was dismissed in February 2007. The students also had sought an injunction to prevent the DVD release of the film, which was denied.
Another lawsuit was filed by a South Carolina resident who claimed to have been accosted by Baron Cohen (as Borat) in the bathroom at a restaurant in downtown Columbia, with the actor allegedly making comments regarding the individual's genitals, without signing any legal waiver. The lawsuit also sought to have the footage excluded from any DVD releases and removed from Internet video sites.
The Macedonian Romani singer Esma Redžepova sued the film's producers, seeking €800,000 because the film used her song "Chaje Šukarije" without her permission. Afterwards, Redžepova won a €26,000 compensation, since it turned out that Cohen got permission from her production house to use the song, which she was not notified about.
A lawsuit was launched by Felix Cedeno, who wanted $2.25 million from 20th Century Fox, claiming they invaded his privacy and needed permission to use his image. The 31-year-old was riding the subway home to the South Bronx when Baron Cohen let a live hen out of his suitcase, causing chaos in the subway car.
Baltimore resident Michael Psenicska sought more than $100,000 in damages from Baron Cohen, 20th Century Fox and other parties. Psenicska, a high school mathematics teacher who also owns a driving school, was reportedly paid $500 in cash to give Baron Cohen's bogus Kazakh journalist a driving lesson. In his action, filed in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan, the driving instructor said he had been told the film was a "documentary about the integration of foreign people into the American way of life" and had he known the film's true nature, he said, he would have never participated. Psenicska said he was entitled to damages because the defendants used images of him to advertise the film. The case was dismissed on September 9, 2008.
Jeffrey Lemerond, who was shown running and yelling, "Go away" as Borat attempted to hug strangers on a New York street, filed a legal case claiming his image was used in the film illegally, and that he suffered "public ridicule, degradation and humiliation" as a result. The case was dismissed.
Baron Cohen reacted to these suits by noting, "Some of the letters I get are quite unusual, like the one where the lawyer informed me I'm about to be sued for $100,000 and at the end says, 'P.S. Loved the movie. Can you sign a poster for my son Jeremy?'"
Reception in Kazakhstan
The government of Kazakhstan at first denounced Borat. In 2005, following Borat's appearance at the MTV Movie Awards, the country's Foreign Ministry threatened to sue Sacha Baron Cohen, and Borat's "Kazakh-based" website, www.borat.kz, was taken down. A meeting between Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and U.S. President George W. Bush in September 2006 had Kazakhstan's post-Borat international image among the items on the agenda. Kazakhstan also launched a multi-million dollar "Heart of Eurasia" campaign to counter the Borat effect; Baron Cohen replied by denouncing the campaign at an in-character press conference in front of the White House as the propaganda of the "evil nitwits" of Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is, throughout the film, referred to by Borat as his nation's leading problem—leaving aside the Jews.
The Central Asian distributor of 20th Century Fox, Gemini Films, in 2006 complied with a Kazakh government request to not release the film. That year, however, Kazakh ambassador Erlan Idrissov called parts of the film funny after viewing it, and wrote that the film had "placed Kazakhstan on the map". By 2012 Kazakh Foreign Minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov attributed a great rise in tourism to his country—with visas issued rising ten times—to the film, saying "I am grateful to 'Borat' for helping attract tourists to Kazakhstan."
The Kazakh tabloid Karavan declared Borat to be the best film of the year, having had a reviewer see the film at a screening in Vienna. The paper claimed that it was "...certainly not an anti-Kazakh, anti-Romanian or anti-Semitic" film but rather "cruelly anti-American ... amazingly funny and sad at the same time." Another favorable word came from Kazakh novelist Sapabek Asip-uly, who suggested Baron Cohen be nominated for the annual award bestowed by the Kazakh Club of Art Patrons. In a letter published by the newspaper Vremya, Asip-uly wrote, "(Borat) has managed to spark an immense interest of the whole world in Kazakhstan—something our authorities could not do during the years of independence. If state officials completely lack a sense of humor, their country becomes a laughing stock."Amazon UK has also reported significant numbers of orders of Borat on DVD from Kazakhstan. The film is also watched regularly by the Kazakhstan national football team's players.
In March 2012, the parody national anthem from the film, which acclaims Kazakhstan for its high-quality potassium exports and having the second cleanest prostitutes in the region, was mistakenly played at the H.H. The Amir of Kuwait International Shooting Grand Prix in Kuwait. The Gold Winning medalist, Maria Dmitrienko, stood on the dais while the entire parody was played. The team complained, and the award ceremony was restaged. The incident apparently resulted from the wrong song being downloaded from the Internet.
Accusations of racism
The European Center for Antiziganism Research, which works against negative attitudes toward Roma people, filed a complaint with German prosecutors on 18 October 2006, based on Borat's references to Gypsies in his film. The complaint accuses him of defamation and inciting violence against an ethnic group. As a consequence, 20th Century Fox declared that it would remove all parts referring to Roma people from trailers shown on German television as well as on the film's website.
Before the release of the film, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released a statement expressing concern over Borat's characteristic anti-Semitism. Both Cohen, who is Jewish, and the ADL have stated that the film uses the titular character to expose prejudices felt or tolerated by others, but the ADL expressed concern that some audiences might remain oblivious to this aspect of the film's humor while "some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry."
Censorship in the Arab world
The film was banned in the entire Arab world (with the exception of Lebanon). Yousuf Abdul Hamid, a film censor for Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, called the film "vile, gross and extremely ridiculous." The censor said that he and his colleagues had walked out on their screening before it had ended, and that only half an hour of the film would be left once all the offensive scenes were removed.