Thursday, November 16, 2006

Now Playing: Borat

True confession time. Despite my better judgment, I took in a showing of the hit critically acclaimed film "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan"

This farcical mocumentary features an actor pretending to be a Kazak journalist doing a documentary -- and in so doing, he pramks dozens of unsuspecting Americans by putting them in absurd and uncomfortable situations. Not only is this concept unoriginal (remember Candid Camera anyone?), the producers execute this with a cynical cruelty that just saps all the fun out of it. The opening and closing sequences feature the main character Borat in his home village -- and all the strange, bizzare, and crude characters there. We laugh at how over the top the portrayal is -- thinking these are all actors in a set piece in hollywood. And then we hear this story about how the producers went to a real village and snookered the poor folks there into playing part -- not letting them know what was really going on. The producers played these poor folks for fools, and they laugh all the way to the bank.

We laugh at the moronic college students that Borat encounters along the way, and then we hear this story about how the producers got the students really drunk and gave them the hard pressure to appear in the movie.

We laugh at the antics on TV news broadcast upon which Borat appears, until we read this story about how the producer lost her job and wrestled with depression for months as a result of the experience.

We laugh at the stern looking feminists that Borat interviews early in the film, and then we read about how these people were duped into being a part of the project.

My initial contact came from Chelsea Barnard, a name that, in retrospect, might have tipped me off to a set-up (I’m still not sure if it was real or not). In a chirpy e-mail, Chelsea said she heard about me because I am on the large board of Veteran Feminists of America, a New York group that highlights the successes and history of women leaders such as Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan and Coretta Scott King. My role with the group has been to mount shows of my works to engage people in the arts at public events.

Chelsea said she was working on “a documentary-style film about America” —although by this definition, “The Daily Show” is a documentary, too. “We are working in conjunction with Belarus Television and a foreign correspondent,” Chelsea wrote, covering up even the fictional nationality of Borat. She wanted to arrange “a round table discussion about the recent history of feminism.” Members of the producing team have worked on productions about women war correspondents and female boxers, she reported.

As a former teacher in the arts, I often extend myself to talk to younger generations and people from afar, and have even traveled to Japan to talk about women artists. When I said I would consider participating, Chelsea rushed to my studio. A dark-haired “LonelyGirl15” type, she was earnest in a pre-interview. One question was odd: What television shows do I watch? I later learned that Borat/Cohen doesn’t like encounters with people who know that he’s the guy from “Da Ali G Show.”

The filming was scheduled so rapidly that I had little time to investigate. A six-person crew and Chelsea arrived the next morning to interview me and two others, although Borat was not with them. I was on the Internet at the time, checking a friend’s assessment of the banal-sounding company listed on Chelsea’s card, One America Productions. “It looks like a front,” she said, suggesting a right-wing cover. “Ask who their funders are,” said another. There was no mention of 20th Century Fox, Borat, Cohen, or a comic movie-in-the-making.

As the crew — obviously professional — set up in my art studio, “Chelsea” handed me a contract. I asked more questions. Chelsea said the funding comes from Belarus Television and deftly clicked my computer to its website. She further persuaded me about the value of the project: she said that they were interviewing former Mayor Ed Koch. As an extra step of precaution, I decided to put in a call to his office, and Koch’s secretary, Mary, confirmed that this was true.

I finally agreed, although I admit that I failed to read the fine detail on the “Standard Consent Agreement.” Since I thought this was a documentary, I probably would have signed it anyway. When I did study it later, I realized that it’s anything but “standard.” Buried are statements asserting that I waive claims for “offensive behavior” and “misleading portrayal” and “fraud (such as any alleged deception or surprise about the film or this consent agreement).” While I’m no legal expert, I can’t believe that you can agree to be defrauded — or wouldn’t every used car dealer use the same clause?

Chelsea paid me the grand sum of $200 — cash — for my appearance. Since I’m fairly successful as an artist, the amount of money didn’t concern me, but the payment convinced me that the project had backing and wouldn’t be a waste of my time. She also paid me another $250 for the use of my premises. Chelsea left and finally, Borat showed his face, bounding into my studio, rumpled suit and all.

The fake journalist began legitimately, asking me to describe my sculptural torsos. These works of Women Warriors draw upon iconic female figures, including Wonder Woman, a character who emerged in the midst of World War II “to further the cause of peace, equality and security in a world that seems to be spiraling madly toward perpetual war,” according to original DC Comics introduction. As I pointed out the various materials in the work — wood, metal and stone — Borat listened closely.

But it wasn’t long before the fake journalist started switching and baiting, performing like a Howard Stern wannabe. Women in his country must walk behind men, he said. Condoleezza Rice is the “chocolate lady,” he claimed, implying that she beds foreign diplomats. He gestured his interest in large-breasted women. His goading produced predictable results. Right before I kicked him out, he declared — as the clip shows — that women have smaller brains than men.

Newsweek covers this story pretty well too.

This kind of intentional cruelty does not become us. I've been the victim of radio pranks -- it's not fun to be the object of ridicule. And I get very frustrated by the old catchphrase "It's just a joke -- it's all fun". No, it's not. This film has hurt unsuspecting people. The producers invaded people's spaces with high pressure fast talking con jobs -- and the producers are making a mint for doing it. These guys are no better than the "girls gone wild" producers. But make no mistake -- this isn't reality -- it's abuse.

CS Lewis alerts us to the danger in the Screwtape Letters -- as the demon Screwtape tells of the advantage of humor:

The real use of Jokes or Humour is in quite a different direction, and it is specially promising among the English who take their "sense of humour" so seriously that a deficiency in this sense is almost the only deficiency at which they feel shame. Humour is for them the all-consoling and (mark this) the all-excusing, grace of life. Hence it is invaluable as a means of destroying shame. If a man simply lets others pay for him, he is "mean"; if he boasts of it in a jocular manner and twits his fellows with having been scored off, he is no longer "mean" but a comical fellow. Mere cowardice is shameful; cowardice boasted of with humourous exaggerations and grotesque gestures can be passed off as funny. Cruelty is shameful -- unless the cruel can represent it as a practical joke. A thousand bawdy, or even blasphemous, jokes do not help towards a man's damnation so much as his discovery that almost anything he wants to do can be done, not only without the disapproval but with the admiration of his fellows, if only it can get itself treated as a Joke....Any suggestion that there might be too much of it can be "puritanical" or as betraying a "lack of humour."

Nailed. We're letting the con men tell us what's funny and laugh all the way to the bank. In the process, lives are ruined and a level of public trust is lost. Pay attention Fox films -- your distribution of such films is exactly why I find your Fox Films play to the Christiam market to be cyincial and disingenuous. You show that you don't care who gets hurt, as long as you make the money. When will you bring on the gladiators?

Classical Presbyterian has a really good post on this one too. In the comments to that post, we find the silver lining -- where God seems to be working to bring some redemption to this film: a renewed compassion for the Roma people, who were exploited as the villagers in the film:

To support the Roma, you may want to consider this Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship project.


Perhaps God will use this cruelty to bring relief to the plight of people who are suffering. Meanwhile, don't waste your money on Borat.

Soli Deo Gloria