November 24, 2006
Blurring the Line Between Fantasy and Reality: Borat Raising Questions That Affect User-Generated Content and Community Journalism

The commercial success of Borat has taken the American film industry by storm, as the low-budget film has been raking in substantial profit. According to Box Office Mojo, as of yesterday, the film has earned a total of $99 million domestically and $66 million internationally. It is currently ranked 354 in the top grossing domestic films of all-time and is already the highest-grossing mockumentary in history.

The film opened in 837 theaters its opening weekend, yet still grossed $26 million and was the number one film. Now, three weeks later, Borat has played in 2,611 theaters domestically and has already made five times its $18 million production budget.

However, the film is certainly not without its controversy. Borat, which is subtitled Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, was filmed with a variety of unsuspecting subjects who all thought that the project was a legitimate journalist from Kazakhstan filming a documentary for his country. The film was based on skits from Channel 4 in Britain and on HBO for Da Ali G Show, by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.

And it raises serious questions about the blend of fiction and reality and the questions some people have about how explicitly purposes must be stated when films are being made and the confusion involved when amateur filmmaking has never been more prevalent because of the availability of technology. In other words, the ruse of Borat was made much more possible in this era of convergence culture because his character's mission seemed fairly believable, even as his behavior should not have.

As I've written about here a few weeks ago, the ruse is everything Andy Kaufman wishes he got away with and owes a great deal of its ingenuity to many of Kaufman's tricks over the years. Kaufman created his own stage character and famously tortured everyone with Tony Clifton, in addition to the various tricks he pulled himself, including his sabotage of live television shows in one way or another and the ultimate ruse in the wrestling ring, through his feud with Jerry "The King" Lawler. There are still people here who believe Lawler's piledrive was part of what ended up killing Kaufman, and I'm sure nothing would have made him happier. For various versions of Andy Kaufman's brand of ruse see the great Kaufman "documentaries" Andy Kaufman: I'm from Hollywood as well as the film Man on the Moon.

Or look to the last part of the career of "The Loose Canon" Brian Pillman, who pulled off these type of stunts as well, in which he played almost everyone around him in one way or another. In Pillman's case, while working for Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling, he convinced his boss to make him look like an erratic employee in as many ways as possible, even attempting to fool fellow wrestlers. He ended up convincing his boss, Eric Bischoff, to even formally fire him to make it look more legitimate, and then ended up switching to Vince McMahon's WWE (then WWF) for a high-figure salary because Pillman's "firing" had been legitimate in order to fool even the lawyers...of course Bischoff ended up being the one fooled in that ruse. See the recent WWE DVD release on Pillman's career for more, and Dave Meltzer recently had a fascinating piece on this period in Pillman's life.

Since the film's promotion and release, there has been substantial arguments with the government of Kazakhstan, who are greatly offended by the portrayal of their country. In fact, they shut down the Kazakhstan-located Web site for Borat, at the protest of Reporters without Borders, and have issued various statements against the film and its profit through spreading misconceptions about the country. Further, the European Center for Antiziganism Research has protested the film's portrayal of gypsies, and the American Jewish organization the Anti-Defamation League has denounced the characters anti-semitism despite the fact that the comedian is actually Jewish.

When I first saw the film, having no history with Da Ali G Show, I did not realize that almost everyone in the film was unsuspecting. But people didn't have a good laugh like those in Candid Camera because they were never made aware that the skits were a gag. The fraternity boys depicted in the film have already followed suit, and one woman who worked at a local television station that allowed Borat to come onto the show to speak, only to have him destroy the broadcast with various outlandish remarks and by not knowing how to act on the set, lost her job for allowing Borat onto the show as a guest, she claims. As well, a woman who hosted a dinner party in Borat's honor only to be completely humiliated has filed suit. The character's antics also almost caused major problems at a rodeo in Virginia, and the skits from the show led to shocking anti-semitic comments from the owner of a Texas ranch and a Republican candidate for U.S. Congress from Mississippi. More information is available on the Wikipedia entry for Borat.

Also, see Borat's Web page for a great piece of transmedia. The site is made to feel in every way authentic, without the need for an official movie release logo at the top or anything of the sort. The fact that he was able to promote the film on talk shows in character and then able to promote it through this Web site and his MySpace page by making them feel authentic with an amateurist aesthetic has helped tremendously.

There are various major ethical questions raised by this experiment, of course, and the ability he had to use footage from people depends on whether their claims that they expressly agreed only to air that footage in certain places across the world (not the American market) makes a difference. But it's hard to be upset for Americans when their own prejudices are revealed. I guess people just don't like to be Punk'd.

However, for the villagers in the Romanian village in which the opening and closing was shot have garnered more sympathy for being exploited, as their poverty was a major part of the film's beginning and end and was turned comical when they claim that they thought he was making a documentary about their plight.