Amid the usual controversies following his acts, British actor Sacha Baron Cohen released a sequel to his 2006 Borat movie last month, stirring a wide range of emotions across Kazakhstan and elsewhere.
The Borat movies and the Central Asian country are linked by Cohen’s use of Kazakhstan as the country of origin of Borat Sagdiyev, the sexist and racist character that Cohen portrays.
While Cohen justified the original choice of Kazakhstan for his satirical jab at U.S. politics and culture “because it was a place that almost nobody in the U.S. knew anything about, which allowed us to create a wild, comedic, fake world,” local journalists argued that it might be because Kazakhstan is inherently “marginal,” not European or Asian enough to call for xenophobia, nor rich or poor enough to be universally mocked.
Critics from Kazakhstan said that the misrepresentation of the country was a sign of the permanence of systemic racism and a double standards, highlighting “the inconsistency of Hollywood’s rhetoric of representation politics.” Others argued that in the United States, Cohen could “get a free pass by the left” on its racism only because his movie attacked Rudolph Giuliani, a close ally of outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump.
Abroad, the response to the film was alternatively baffled or oblivious to its racist content. In a rather clueless piece, Newsweek even praised Borat for its feminist slant, given its “few genuinely touching and empowering moments.” To this point, not only hosted in the columns of Newsweek, cartoonist Erden Zikibay poignantly responded with a collection of testimonies of women from Kazakhstan who witnessed some level of violence or harassment after the release of the first Borat movie, with all its misogynistic jokes.
Left-wing magazine Jacobin also missed the opportunity to highlight the inherent racism of using Kazakhstan as a punchline for backward and misogynistic behavior. The critique of the movie’s comedy could have gone further than just stating that it “picks easy, woke moralizing over funny social satire.” That moralizing, in fact, is done in the equivalent of a Central Asian blackface.
Upset by the lack of awareness, Zikibay launched a social media campaign called #CancelBorat in an effort to underline how the character of Borat had done a disservice to the understanding of Kazakhstan and its culture, causing racist attitudes against Kazakhs living abroad.
Zikibay’s point was echoed by many among the cosmopolitan population of Kazakhstanis who studied and worked abroad. Others, such as public figure Alisher Yelikbayev, said that Borat had little influence on his life and applauded the marketing campaign of the film.
A rather neutral position, focusing mostly on the natural landscapes, food, and hospitality, was taken by the government agency Kazakh Tourism, which produced a series of ads that went viral on YouTube and other social media platforms.
Western and Russian media quickly lauded the effort as “embracing” the Borat insult and being able to laugh at itself – something that the ad, incidentally, did not seek to do, as the video had the goal of showcasing the real Kazakhstan.
Some of the anti-Borat sentiment, however, had a nationalist slant.
Within this context, nationalists took up the initiative to display the country flag as a sign of pride. In a political U-turn, President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev said that he would amend the decades-long policy of strict use of Kazakhstan’s flag in official settings only.
“I support the proposal of a number of MPs and patriotic citizens of our country for a wider use of Kazakhstan state symbols, especially the country flag of the Republic of Kazakhstan,” Tokayev tweeted on October 27.
Notably, critics said that such a decision could lead to a resurgence of nationalism and some pointed out other cases in which the flag was used in an unorthodox way – namely to carry waste during street cleaning. The latest anti-government rallies in the country, on October 31 and November 14, featured an unprecedented number of Kazakhstan flags among the crowd, now legitimized to wield them.
In a dramatic display of disapproval, a crowd of Almaty residents visited the local U.S. consulate carrying a makeshift coffin to bury a life-size print of the Borat character, along with a petition to ban the screening of Borat movies in the United States.
Colorfully denouncing both sides, one Facebook user said: “Maybe [Sacha Baron Cohen] is a colonialist asshole, but that doesn’t mean that those he called assholes aren’t ones.”
In fact, as Moldiyar Yergebekov, professor of media and gender studies at Suleyman Demirel University in Almaty, summed up in a recent op-ed, “Borat is the allegory of the people of Kazakhstan,” and only by having an honest conversation about Borat’s offensive humor locals can outgrow their sense of being especially targeted by racism, while purporting a false anti-racism themselves.