Truly Kazakhstan – or 'From Russia, with love'
The Borat movie made its own splashes and ripples in Australia when it opened, but I 'ummed' and 'aahed' over whether I should see it. I dislike much of Sacha Baron Cohen's (the film's creator) comedy, and Borat was the character that most annoyed me from the Ali G series, so the chances of my going were slim. They still are. So, this is not a film review but my take on how satire (and humour generally) relates to what's really going on.
The film, as its full title, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, suggests, allows its audience to laugh an stupid Americans – and wonder at their bigotry, ignorance, insularity and downright stupidity. Yet, as easy a target as the Yanks are, I'm more interested in how Baron Cohen invites us to laugh at the stupid, backward Kazakhs, who may as well be feudal for the way he portrays them.
And here is the rub – the Kazakhstan government criticises Baron Cohen's depiction of their country and people, and has urged him to visit their country and see for himself how wonderful the people and their nation is. (Borat was actually filmed in Romania. Wikipedia has a good run-down of the film's production and its lack of Kazakh content here). Their argument is that Borat doesn't truly represent their country.
I've really intrigued at how people can be taken in by Baron Cohen's Borat character, and the few times I caught the act on Ali G, I wondered if people really new if he was just an actor in character – these non-actors were really treating Borat as a real person. There's a great op-ed piece by Joel Stein, republished by the Sydney Morning Herald, where he points out how journalists are so prepared (or naive) to go along for the ride with Borat – by pretending they are interviewing Borat – rather than the actor – just to get some outrageous copy:
I love that Cohen is using his performance art on journalists themselves, who are willing to email him questions and then print Q-and-As with a fake character as if it were a real-time interview. I believe journalism should be entertaining. But not in the Stephen Glass/Jayson Blair/Loch Ness monster way.While the Kazakhstan government's protestations of their country's beauty and their people's grace makes us stop and think about how another country – especially one so newly emerged from the Iron Curtain and we know so little about – can be misrepresented in our popular culture, I still wouldn't want to accept the 'official' version – no country's official, government version of its self should be taken a face value. For one, I seriously suspect the Kazakhstan regime of wanting to gloss over their horrendous nuclear legacy from the Soviet Union.
If you can't make a story about a movie this complicated and different interesting - without just getting Cohen to perform - then you might as well just direct people to a clip of his movie. The excuse is that it's only entertainment journalism.
Environmental Memoirs is a website of stories of environmental degradation and disaster from people who have witnessed the ecological changes in their home regions – collected by two friends of mine who have been travelling across the globe overland. They recorded some shocking stories about nuclear contamination in Kazakhstan, where the main ecological issues are:
radioactive or toxic chemical sites associated with former defence industries and test ranges scattered throughout the country pose health risks for humans and animals; industrial pollution is severe in some cities; because the two main rivers which flowed into the Aral Sea have been diverted for irrigation, it is drying up and leaving behind a harmful layer of chemical pesticides and natural salts; these substances are then picked up by the wind and blown into noxious dust storms; pollution in the Caspian Sea; soil pollution from overuse of agricultural chemicals and salination from poor infrastructure and wasteful irrigation practices.I wonder if that would have made it into the Kazakhstan government's attempt to correct the record. Or this:
The residents of Semey in northern Kazakhstan live 150 kilometers from the former Soviet nuclear test site known as The Polygon. From 1949 to 1989 the residents of Semey and the surrounding villages were exposed to the fallout of numerous nuclear tests. In fact, a total of 456 tests were carried throughout this period.Environmental Memoirs has some amazing perspectives from people who witnessed the nuclear testing, including Telman Kadyrkhanov, who "recalls witnessing several explosions and tells of the impact it had on his village", and others who are dealing with the legacy of cancer.
For another perspective on the Borat film, Kazakhstan and the truth, from someone who has travelled there and knows the region's geo-politics intimately, I highly recommend Craig Murray. Murray was British ambassador to Uzbekhistan, and is now a writer, blogger and broadcaster who exposes the corrupt regimes of former Soviet Central Asia. Worth a look, to reveal more of the region we know so little of. Lest some comic takes us for another ride.
[Images: Borat movie poster – Wikipedia; Nuclear disaster memorial in Kazakhstan – Environmental Memoirs]