The brilliance of Borat

Borat Movie PosterThis post may be longer than most, as I’m going to attempt to explicate and recount the brilliance of Borat.

 As with the film, there’s bound to be controversy about the content. Unlike the film, I won’t have humor and an eccentric persona to protect me from awkwardness nor to let you off the hook for dismissing the message and messenger.

This might seem a late breaker, but better late than never with that which inspires. Months after release and Golden Globe win, I finally watched Borat. It’s brilliant. To all those offended–and it seems like there are more with this film than most since Mel Gibson’s Passion–you must have missed the point.


If you haven’t seen the movie, here’s the Wikipedia synopsis:

Borat Sagdiyev (Sacha Baron Cohen), a popular Kazakh television personality, leaves his homeland for the ‘Greatest Country in the World’ “U.S. and A.” to make a documentaryat the behest of the fictitious Kazakh Ministry of Information. He leaves behind his mother, his wife Oksana and the town rapist, bringing along his obese producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian). Much of the movie features unscripted vignettesof Borat interviewing and interacting with Americans who believe he is an actual foreigner with no understanding of US customs. “

Borat takes on major culture driving geographies and strata including: New York; Washington DC; Hollywood; Bible Belt/Christian Right; Southern High Society; Gay and Frat.The hilarious and often mad-cap antics exploit cultural differences and stereotypes. In one scene, Borat has an American humor coach try to teach him the art of joke telling.

In one segment, he spends a good amount of time trying to learn “not jokes”–as in “your blog is articulate…NOT.” And it seems that the film is full of jokes and insights that are “not” jokes, where the stated antagonist isn’t what it seems. When a Jewish couple hosts the film crew at a Bed and Breakfast, their generosity accentuates the irrational ignorance, fear and hatred inbred into Borat and his team. When pointing out intolerance, we see great gestures towards tolerance, especially in the High Society South. The film treats those most parodied or maligned with a certain dignity while attacking self-importance and shining a bright light on intolerance at every turn. What is art, if not a pointer or hyperlink to (re)discovery?

The Language of the Times

With all the sacred cows in its target, it’s not surprising that law suits and complaints from special interest groups have emerged. Turn back time a century and you’ll find another popular storyteller cast in the same light with Jack London  (Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Sea Wolf). Viewed through the lenses and sensitivities of contemporary critics, Jack London’s works have been accused of bigotry. In Valley of the Moon Book III, Chapter 1 characters disparage “Old Silva” for his great success in making more out of the land and crops they farmed than their white counterparts. London describes them as coming from the Azores, as my Great Grandfather did in the late 1800s, to take over most of San Leandro. While lambasting the “Portugueeze” his characters impart admiration and respect for their target. From personal experience, I didn’t feel maligned when reading about the Portuguese Farmer described, most likely an ancestor of mine. In fact, I felt a sense of pride. Many of Jack London’s short stories that I have read uniformly handled other minorities such as Chinese and Hawaiians in the same way. Ultimately, rather than preaching and risking offending his publishers, patrons and readers, Jack London spoke in the plain language of the day to amuse them into a more enlightened and inclusive world view and position.

Borat does the same for the YouTube/MySpace generation. In fact, he acts like these new media forms: using first-person delivery; employing  short, sketch-like episodes; making any associate “a friend”–“I like you. Do you like me?” he asks. He deploys comedy to point out lesser human values. Some the messages implied would be too inflammatory or disagreeable if served up any other way. While it has a polarizing effect, I think the mocumentary form has greater chance to penetrate a culture and worldview colored with fear than a documentary with the same subject.

On the Inferiority Complex

Borat National Anthem

A pivotal moment for me in the film was when Borat addresses a Salem , Virginia rodeo before singing the national anthem. He incites the crowd with over-the-top pro-war jingoism that is critically precise as a result of his “broken English.” As he pushes the boundaries of even the most extremist views, the crowd begins to lose their patience. Then, with hats off and heads bowed in earnest respect (see picture) Borat hits the faithful with a final insult: the parodied Kazakhstan National Anthem  sang to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner:

Kazakhstan greatest country in the world.
All other countries are run by little girls.
Kazakhstan number one exporter of potassium.
Other countries have inferior potassium.
Kazakhstan home of Tinshein swimming pool.
Its length thirty meter
width six meter.
Filtration system a marvel to behold.
It remove 80 percent of human solid waste.
Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan you very nice place. (Click for complete version).

In the film, as you’ll see in the trailer clip (time code 1:10-1:25), one of the mounted rodeo horses falls with slapstick perfection as Borat sings. Unless that was digitally inserted, hard to imagine how that kind of magic happens. It’s an understated metaphor for the undermining or overthrow of a values system. If you follow the event online, it gets more bizarre. The local news picked up the rodeo story. And the anchor (another of Sacha Baron Cohen’s law suiters) lost her job on grounds of incompetence for not unearthing Borat’s fictional nature.

All that drama is the storm around the central theme that I’ve been driving towards. The Brilliance of Borat is that it pursues genuine Insights about the American Psyche.  For the purposes of digital marketing, at Real Branding we define “Insights” as “a deep, penetrating discovery into the needs or motivations of a consumer that can be applied to unlock business growth.” We know when we’re in Insight Land when we’re dealing with uncomfortable, true emotions. I believe the deep, under-the-skin emotional reality that Borat exposes is an Inferiority Complex. Because of the nature of a Complex and the sensitivity of this claim, I won’t be surprised if this conclusion is dismissed, discounted or somehow perverted into “Anti-American” rhetoric. It is most certainly not the latter, rather a proposal for self-awareness around why Borat is so compelling and polarizing.

In his “Essays on Contemporary Events,” Carl Jung describes with clear hindsight the Inferiority Complex resident in his German patients revealed through dream therapy a decade before World War II. In their dreams, they collectively described a blond beast/god Jung related to the Nordic god of War, Wotan/Odin. He suggested this expression was a nationalistic slice of the collective unconscious and compensatory for an Inferiority Complex. This complex would dismiss the rights of others. It will rationalize “The Other” to a tidy place for dispensation. And it will not allow any other to claim superiority to their position. So, how can Kazakhstan be “greatest country in the world?” In one of the film outtakes on DVD the rodeo producer suggests Borat is a marked man for lynching, which is an appropriate response from the Complex. In this age of US war, Hollywood may be the best expression of our nationalistic collective unconscious, and is it any surprise that our blockbusters include a heroic last stand (300), flawed and vigilante Superheros (take your pick) and marauding looters (Pirates)?

 Bringing this back to digital marketing (hard to get back after going there…) I’ve personally seen this Inferiority Complex presented several times in focus groups geared towards positioning imported/challenger brands to one positioned as “Red, White and Blue.” To appeal to the Complex, the import needs to use self-deprecating humor (“Oy, it’s Australian for Beer, Mate”) or focus on the esteem of the consumer, removing superior product claims. Years of research experience built for me the case of what Borat exploited in a single, horse-felling gesture.

Don’t dismiss this clown too easily. He’s brilliant.


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