Thursday, November 16, 2006

Silly Borat, Tricks are for Kids

When I heard that two of the three frat boys seen in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) were suing the film's star (not to mention the production company), I scoffed.

I mean, sure, they embarrassed themselves on-screen by saying sexist and racist things. And, sure, they thought the "documentary" was going to air only in Kazakhstan.

But they said what they said, unscripted, and they knew they were being recorded. It's not comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's fault they cannot control their tongues (even if the production crew did, as they boys allege, ply them with alcohol). Mel Gibson wishes he could take it back, too, but at least he's not suing the police officers who reported his verbal backwoods shenanigans.

And then I heard about some Turkish guy who's suing Cohen for "stealing" his character. Turns out this guy might have a case: he started a (now defunct) website in 1999 called This personal website began as a legitimate homepage, but its creator quickly became an "online celebrity," when his broken English, silly pictures (him sunbathing, him playing ping pong) and pleas for American women to "come stay please at my home" earned him a cult following. He was sharp enough to pick up on this fact, and so played along with it... further transforming his site into a comedy of errors.

If he can prove Cohen stole his "character" as the inspiration of Borat, then he deserves to be compensated. Otherwise, I think Cohen could make the case that the accuser isn't the only man in the world with broken English and bad taste. Not to mention, it's a sad but true fact in the creative world that many of our best ideas are "stolen" (or, at least, independently developed by someone else, and then put to good use before we get the chance).

But this newest lawsuit. Well... this one bothers me a bit.

Turns out parts of this film that I assumed were staged were not entirely so.

And that includes the opening sequence, where "Borat" wanders around his Kazakh village, introducing his family and exposing the town's poverty for all the world to see.

Because of what happens in this scene, I imagined the people were "actors" being compensated for their trouble. Turns out they weren't actors at all, but rather a group of impoverished gypsies in the Romanian village of Glod. Apparently they were led to believe they were taking part in a documentary about poverty, and were paid between $3.30 and $5.50 to do demeaning things.

[Sure, you can argue that's more than they would've had — it's true, and that's precisely why they did what they did — they needed the money. But to see an entire village taken advantage of like that? It's disheartening.]

Is it wrong of me to see a difference between the drunken frat boys and the villagers who live without running water?

Granted, I realize compensating these villagers after-the-fact is a slippery slope of sorts: if Cohen were to pony up more cash, would he then have to equally compensate everyone else who appears in the film?

I imagine, legally, that's a difficult line to draw.

Cohen and company could've avoided all of this up front by being honest with the Romanians (in comparison to other scenes, these people weren't being caught "candid" on camera) and paying them more money (compensating them as "actors" rather than people merely making appearances). Granted, they may have still asked for more money after they realized what a huge success the film turned out to be, but at least that would have had less cause for recourse.

But this newest case infers these things weren't done. I'm waiting for more facts to come out, but if these allegations are true — and it appears as though they are — Cohen owes the people of Glod one enormous goodwill gesture.


michele said...

"Is it wrong of me to see a difference between the drunken frat boys and the villagers who live without running water?"

Seems to me there IS a big difference. From what I can tell from news reports, the frat boys were given liquor and time in front of a camera. They chose to say the things they said. The only deception they had practied on them was that they were told their fellow citizens wouldn't hear their boorish statements.

The villagers on the other hand were told that they were participating in a film that would highlight a reality of their lives - their poverty. That was the only real deception. What is immoral (but not necessarily illegal) is directing them to perform demeaning acts.

The boys demeaned themselves. The villagers were instructed to demean themselves. While it's not deceptive in itself, the direction the villagers received is manipulative and Cohen does owe the people of Glod. Doing something to raise the standard of living the village might be one place to start.

Anonymous said...

I am with Michelle on this one. It is one thing to let idiots be idiots. It is quite another to direct people when they think they are helping themselves. One is letting nature take itself. The other is taking advantage of people in a bad position.

Of course I think lying to people to get them to act differently is BS but that is me.

Saurabh said...

You are tagged :-)

Winter said...

I couldn't help but laugh.. I felt very dirty afterwards! (If that makes me look any better..)