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Archive for Friday, November 10, 2006

Burned by ‘Borat’

Kazakhs in Lawrence react to country’s portrayal in big-screen comedy

Zhanar Bekturganova, a Kansas University student from Kazakhstan, is upset by the depiction of her country in the comedy "Borat." The film opened in Lawrence last Friday.

Zhanar Bekturganova, a Kansas University student from Kazakhstan, is upset by the depiction of her country in the comedy "Borat." The film opened in Lawrence last Friday.

November 10, 2006

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Not since the fall of communism has the former Soviet Union seemed so immersed in the media spotlight.

TV news and entertainment programs, movie theaters and Web sites have been infatuated during the last week with one denizen of that region in particular: Borat Sagdiyev.

His movie, "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," follows the raunchy Kazakh reporter as he hatches observations while traveling from New York to California.

Only Borat is really comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. And he's from England, not Kazakhstan.

The trouble is that for many Americans, their whole impression of Kazakhstan comes from Borat's less-than-flattering portrayal.

"It makes me feel uncomfortable," says Zhanar Bekturganova, a Kansas University student from Kazakhstan.

"The whole thing he is saying is not true. It's not very pleasant to see how someone is telling not very good things about your country."

Bekturganova is not without a sense of humor about Borat. She admits to finding some of his gags funny. But it is more the effect he's had on Americans that she resents.

"Many people are trying to (quote) things from the movie to me. They think he's a very funny, interesting person. But some of them still think our country is something like he is showing. They ask me, 'Is it true in Kazakhstan people have sex with their sisters?'"

Zhanar Bekturganova, a Kansas University student from Kazakhstan, is upset by the depiction of her country in the comedy "Borat." The film opened in Lawrence last Friday.

Zhanar Bekturganova, a Kansas University student from Kazakhstan, is upset by the depiction of her country in the comedy "Borat." The film opened in Lawrence last Friday.

Erik Herron was familiar with Cohen's work on TV's "Da Ali G Show" and has seen clips from "Borat" on YouTube. As director of KU's Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies, he was initially amused by Borat's schtick.

"In some respect it's more of a social and political satire of the United States than it is of Kazakhstan," Herron says. "The danger is that American public opinion is sometimes swayed by information that is not entirely accurate. It worries me there will be a perception of it as a country of misogynistic, anti-Semitic, anti-gypsy, racist, horse urine drinkers."

Angry reaction

There is a surprisingly large contingent of Kazakh students in the Lawrence area. Nine currently attend KU, and another handful are scattered throughout Kansas City.

"I know only five of them," says the 19-year-old Bekturganova, who is studying architecture at KU. "We are here to study, so we don't go out a lot. We live in different dormitories, so it's hard to be friends. But we know each other. Sometimes we go to movies like this."

A native of the city of Karaganda, which is populated by nearly a half-million people, Bekturganova says the depiction of her homeland in "Borat" is a complete fabrication.

"It's pretty big," she says of Kazakhstan, which is the world's ninth-largest country. "There are a lot of rich people in our country. We have a lot of cars. We live in the usual buildings. It's a modern country. There are no cars pulled by donkeys."

Geographically, the nation is bordered by Russian, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and China, and it shares a coastline on the Caspian Sea.

She adds, "We have a stable economy. We're a very young country. Democratic. If it was a country like Borat is showing, I wouldn't be here. But I'm here. I have a scholarship from my government. Our education system is not perfect. But they're trying to be sure in their future, so they've sent young people to study abroad."

Coincidentally, the same day "Borat" was released into theaters last weekend, a visiting contingent from Kazakhstan arrived in Lawrence.

KU economics professor Mohamed El-Hodiri brought six Kazakh doctoral students to campus for a two-week visit. Their collective reaction was very similar to Bekturganova's.

"I'm angry," says Asset Botaibekov. "Simply, his jokes are not correct for Kazakhstan. It's not true. Now he's a person non grata in Kazakhstan."

(In a news conference, Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Yerzhan Ashykbayev called Cohen's character "utterly unacceptable, being a concoction of bad taste and ill manners which is completely incompatible with the ethics and civilized behavior of Kazakhstan's people.")

The group of students said they were accustomed to watching American movies, citing recent examples such as "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" and the latest "Mission: Impossible" sequel. But they were split on whether they would use their downtime this week to catch a showing of "Borat."

Fallout from satire

Professor Herron says that most of the Kazakhstan-oriented information dispensed by Borat has no basis in fact.

The depiction of the region as sub-provincial huts where cows share rooms with citizens is, of course, ridiculous. (Scenes from this part of the movie were actually shot in Romania.)

Herron describes Kazakhstan as a country that is starting to devote a large percentage of its oil wealth to education.

He also says Borat's outrageously anti-Semitic behavior (comedian Cohen himself is Jewish) is a gross exaggeration.

"Within the Soviet Union there is a large Jewish population," he explains. "There has been anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union and the former Soviet Union, but it is not something that has been as great of a concern with Kazakhstan as with other parts."

However, Herron does understand why Cohen would choose the country as the starting point for his faux character.

"Kazakhstan doesn't have an internationally famous event or internationally known historical figure associated with it," he says.

Thus, it is all the easier for Cohen to dupe unsuspecting westerners into actually falling for his obnoxious behavior.

Whether Kazakhstan itself will suffer much from Borat's representation is still a matter of debate.

"People aren't going to stark flocking to Kazakhstan for tourism. It's a pretty exotic and hard-to-reach destination. But you don't want to turn off the few tourists you get by these perceptions of it being a relatively uninviting place - even if people know deep down it's satire," Herron says.

"One of the things I've puzzled with is you could probably have an even more vicious satire of Americans and the knowledge they have by making up a country with a 'stan' at the end."

Comments

jonas 8 years, 3 months ago

Zhanar: Don't worry. We americans are equal opportunity stereotypers, and if you're looking for some silver lining on this particular cloud of yours, just think that, without Borat, many, many of us would never have heard of your native Kazakhstan at all.

quigley 8 years, 3 months ago

Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.....

Shardwurm 8 years, 3 months ago

"The trouble is that for many Americans, their whole impression of Kazakhstan comes from Borat's less-than-flattering portrayal."

No..only the stupid ones. And you really don't care what they think anyway do you?

Jean Robart 8 years, 3 months ago

Has Borat said or done something funny? I find him stupid and unfunny

50Percent 8 years, 3 months ago

hurlehey_boy..

According to the Movie, Kazakhstan is 50th in the world for sense of humor. That's why Borat comes to America.

buffbonzai 8 years, 3 months ago

Unfortunately, as the film demonstrates, there are a lot of dumb Americans out there and I'm sure that some of them would believe that Borat's depiction of Kazakhstan is real. However, the depiction in the film is so over the top that most people would see it as pure farce. It's the reality of how certain Americans behave in the film that people should be upset about.

Example of stupid American conduct:

"The Muslims are pi++ed because the comedy does not fit into their radical religion."

Kelly Powell 8 years, 3 months ago

yep, us stupid americans....just say stupid people dude....I'm sure every other country has their share of idiots. just as I'm sure each country has their own set of stereotypes they use.

Christine Pennewell Davis 8 years, 3 months ago

I have a question, Has everyone lost their sense of humor? You do not need a college degree to tell you that this is a movie made with the sole pupose of making you laugh, maybe dumb, but try to laugh people it makes you feel better.

acg 8 years, 3 months ago

It's not just Lawrence and the LJW, Irish Prince. I've been reading this in the news for a week now and apparently Kazakhstanians (is that a word?) everywhere are up in arms. I don't see the problem at all. People make movies, tv, songs, etc. every day about America and how dumb and selfish we are and we can still laugh about it. Mommaeffort is right, this is supposed to be a comedy. If it doesn't make you laugh, fine, go watch something else. But why whine about it? People whine entirely too much. "Aww waaahhh, I'm offended by that". Get the hell over it. FWATB!!!

muffaletta 8 years, 3 months ago

The NYTimes did a story a month or so before the release of Borat that reported most people in Kazakhstan a) hadn't heard of Borat or b) thought he was pretty funny. The article was written by a person actually interviewing Kazakhs IN Kazakhstan. It's basically just the president of the country who's really freaked out about the whole thing. Apparently he doesn't like to be second-guessed much.

PeteJayhawk 8 years, 3 months ago

But when it comes right down to it, the important lesson to be learned here is that the Kazakh chick is pretty hot.

Bob Forer 8 years, 3 months ago

Come on people. Its satire. Its a joke. Loosen up.

Harry_Manback 8 years, 3 months ago

Give me a break. Anything you do these days seems to piss someone off. I think the whole point of the movie was missed on some.

MadAnthony 8 years, 3 months ago

So if the comedy was a Moslem poking the same satire at the hubris of the Jews and the joys of shelling Palestinian childen then I suppose it would be blood libel and antisemite and we would all be led in a chorus of "death to the Jew haters."

But you can slam away at traditional cultures, well, because they are traditionalists, silly rabbi! So you go, Cohen, er, I mean Borat! Send up those modernity-rejecting Kazakkers. You are the new Woody Allen, which means we are all obligated to say you are funny or risk rejection by those who truly matter.

roger_o_thornhill 8 years, 3 months ago

A lot of you say to lighten up, but just watch some of the portrayals of Americans in Chinese sit-coms. Then see what you think is funny.

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