What Do Kazakhs Think of Borat?

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What Do Kazakhs Think of Borat?

With a new film, the satirical character is back in the headlines – and so is Kazakhstan, his supposed home.

What Do Kazakhs Think of Borat?

British actor Sacha Baron Cohen, dressed as his character Borat, poses for the press near the Eiffel tower in Paris, in this, Oct. 9, 2006, file photo.

Credit: AP Photo/Christophe Ena, file

After nearly 15 years, the character of Borat, a Kazakh journalist who visits the United States and learns about its customs and beliefs, is back. The first film, released in 2006, earned more than $260 million worldwide and accolades in the U.S. for comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.

Now, its sequel “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” has been released through Amazon Prime.

But the caricature of a fumbling racist and misogynistic journalist from the Central Asian country has rubbed some of its residents the wrong way, and — some say — is breeding racism abroad.

Teacher Aliya Seitmetova is one such person. After the first film came out, she said she encountered racism in France as a tourist. “I felt bad when not one, but many people laughed. This is the reaction of foreigners who encountered me when Borat first came out. Now Borat 2 is going to come out. I am going to go to England for a language course to improve my English. After the previous experience, I will not be fearful.”

After the release of the first film, Kazakh officials banned the film and railed against it.

This time around, though, the government has taken a different approach. A campaign using Borat’s signature line “very nice” has been adopted by tourism officials. The campaign features four promotional videos showcasing the wondrous landscapes, culinary delights, and cityscapes of the country.

Officials hope the campaign invites tourists to “celebrate Kazakhstan and show fans of the ‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’ around the world why they should come visit this incredible country,” according to a news release provided to CNN.

“The slogan 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,” said Kairat Sadvakassov, deputy chairman of Kazakh Tourism, in the release.

“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.”

Sadvakassov said it was an American who came up with the idea to use the catchphrase as a tourism draw. Dennis Keen has been living and working in Kazakhstan for years after studying as a foreign exchange student in the country. In an interview with The New York Times, Keen said that in Kazakhstan, there is pre- and post-Borat. Right before the sequel debuted, Keen and his friend, Yermek Utemissov, pitched their idea to the tourism board, which immediately responded enthusiastically.

“It’s a newer generation,” Utemissov told The New York Times when considering whether Kazakhs would be angry this time around. “They’ve got Twitter, they’ve got Instagram, they’ve got Reddit, they know English, they know memes. They get it. They’re inside the media world. We’re looking at the same comedians, the same Kimmel show. Kazakhstan is globalized.”

Keen did not respond to an interview request from The Diplomat.

Kazakhstan saw about 4.5 million visitors in 2014, according to the World Tourism Organization, the latest available data from the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Tourism Report. Tourism accounts for about 1.8 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the report.

Foreigners are now recognizing Kazakhstan, and it can help further develop the tourism industry, said economist Maksat Qalyq.

“It is necessary to improve tourism,” Qalyq said. “We should use it. Tourism can be developed.”

“However, it is not necessary to show a strong reaction to the film and spend time and energy,” he added. “I did not feel humiliated when I watched the movie. The movie was not very interesting. The film is as an act of foolishness.”

Still, some residents are angry with the portrayal of the country.

Recently, about 20 activists gathered in front of the U.S. consulate in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan. They held posters declaring “no way to racism” and “stop insulting the Kazakhs in America.” In addition, a cardboard statue of Borat was placed in a grotto and protestors demanded that the character cease in the United States. About 20 Kazakh citizens signed a petition seeking a ban of the film and planned to hand it over to the consulate general. However, no one met the demonstrators.

Earlier, the youth of the Namys movement gathered in front of the U.S. consulate general in Almaty and handed over a protest letter. Anti-Borat petitions have been circulating on social media – both in Kazakhstan and abroad.

Foreigners who think that Kazakhstan is like what is portrayed in the film should learn more about the country, because it’s very different, said Diaz Azimzhanov, a film director.

“I think this movie was 10 to 12 years late, because now there are a lot of people abroad who know where Kazakhstan is and what is happening there, he said, adding that for the film itself, he believes it is narrow-minded satire that has nothing to do with Kazakhstan. “This conclusion is recognized by the author of the film himself. I understand that some citizens are angry, but I don’t think it’s worth paying too much attention to this work.”

In the U.S., the Kazakh American Association slammed Cohen and Amazon Prime, which is distributing the film, for what it calls a racist depiction of Kazakhs. They say the film “incites violence against a highly vulnerable and underrepresented minority ethnic group.”

In an October 20 letter to Amazon officials, the Virginia-based nonprofit dedicated to promoting and preserving Kazakh heritage and culture in the U.S. asked that the film’s release be canceled.

“Sacha Baron Cohen and his crew white washes our ethnicity and therefore makes it okay to make fun of us,” said Gaukhar (Gia) Noortas, a Kazakh native now in Los Angeles who is founder and CEO of the Hollywood Film Academy. “It would be completely politically incorrect if [the targeted group] were Asian or Black.”

In the letter, Noortas also argues that a White man is using an actual country and its minority population in the U.S. for comedic exploits and gains.

“In these exploits, Mr. Cohen has decided to racially abuse, culturally appropriate, and mock the Kazakh culture, traditions and people for the purpose of crude laughter and monetary gain,” Noortas wrote. “In the year 2020, we are able to witness firsthand the toll that racism takes on people’s lives. Considering today’s socially aware political climate, why is a racist film which openly berates, bullies and traumatizes a nation comprised of people of color an acceptable form of entertainment that meets Amazon’s ethical values?”

Noortas goes on to write that if Cohen really was trying to target U.S. President Donald Trump and racist Americans, he would have created a fictitious country.

“However, Mr. Cohen chose to openly bully, humiliate and dehumanize an actual nation.”

Amazon Prime did not respond to a request for comment from The Diplomat.

Cohen, for his part, told The Financial Times that he and his crew always planned to film and release the sequel ahead of the 2020 U.S. elections.

“Borat is the perfect character for the Trump era, because he is just a slightly more extreme version of Trump. They are both misogynistic and racist, they both don’t care about democracy, and they’re both laughable characters,” Cohen said.

Assem Almukhanbetkyzy is a journalist and a Bolashak scholarship holder reporting from Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Kristi Eaton is a journalist and Tulsa Artist Fellow based in the United States.