When Larry Charles’ 2006 comedic gem Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan first arrived, it was a cultural phenomenon that polarised opinion. Taking Sacha Baron Cohen’s form of outlandish humour to another level, it pissed a lot of people off, ranging from shocked feminists to outraged rednecks. Duly, alongside the multitude of accolades it gained, the film also received a ton of lawsuits filed by the film’s unsuspecting targets, which solidified its legacy as one of the funniest mockumentaries of the 21st century.
Cohen starred as the iconic character Borat Sagdiyev – a fictional reporter from Kazakhstan. The film follows his journey to the United States after being tasked by his government to learn progressive values from Americans. It becomes the central theme of Borat, a sociocultural comparison between the sensibilities of Borat acquired and his supposedly underdeveloped Kazakh village, and the beliefs of the citizens from “the greatest country in the world”. It quickly demonstrates just how ridiculous of a country America is guilty of being in places.
Borat is a flawed man. For instance, he’s a racist, who hates Jewish people but loves his sister, “the number four prostitute in all of Kazakhstan”. He does not understand female equality and is incredibly progressive about male nudity but is disgusted by homosexuality. The structure resembles the satirical narrative arc of films like Bad Boy Bubby, chronicling Borat’s adventures in what Americans boastfully call “the civilised world”.
The most notable achievement of Borat is its unscripted foundation, at least in Borat’s interviews. Thanks to Charles’ extensive background work and research crew, nobody had any idea that all of it was a ruse. They had a team of lawyers and partnered with a fake PR firm to send out interview requests which were accepted by local news stations as well as politicians. From throwing gay pride parade afterparties to starting a riot at a rodeo, Cohen fooled everyone and hilariously exposed their overwhelming ignorance. It was brilliant.
However, Borat’s antics did not go unnoticed. Reports began to spread that a strange man, speaking with a foreign twang, was roaming around the land of hope and glory in an ice cream van. We must remember that this was the decade in which 9/11 was fresh in the memory and so many Americans’ paranoia travelling all-time high. The FBI opened a file on this faux-Kazakh stranger, thinking that perhaps he was on a mission of nefarious intent.
Reflecting this, Cohen told NPR: “They had so many, complaints that there was a Middle Eastern man … driving through America in an ice cream van that the FBI assigned a team to us.” It’s exactly this kind of ignorance that ultimately led to the rise of Trump a decade later. Kazakhstan is not the Middle East.
“(The FBI) got so many complaints there was a terrorist traveling in an ice cream van,” Cohen revealed. “So the FBI got so many complaints that they started compiling a little file on us and eventually they came to visit us at the hotel. I obviously went missing when I heard because they were like ‘FBI’s downstairs. Sacha, disappear.'”
These are the lengths that Cohen, Charles and the crew went to in order to achieve what is effectively an artistic masterpiece. For the FBI to follow Borat, it encapsulated what the film was trying to say. America is the most bizarre country on Earth.