Yes, Kazakhstan is a real country. No, the painfully naive Borat is not actually from there.
Yes, his new movie — actually the new movie from Sacha Baron Cohen, the British comedian who plays Borat — is called “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.” But it has nothing to do with the current major publicity campaign the former Soviet republic that gained freedom in 1991 has launched.
And finally, yes, Borat really did show up at the White House Thursday (September 28), attempting to invite “Premier George Walter Bush” to an upcoming screening. Fans may find all of this quite amusing — but the Secret Service agents who turned Cohen away weren’t so amused.
The Kazakhs are saying the battle between the onetime Russian-ruled country and the chameleon-esque comedian is not an attempt to draw attention away from the comedy flick, which opens in November and is full of the kind of outrageous racist and sexist jokes viewers of “Da Ali G Show” are used to from Borat. (If you haven’t seen Cohen’s show, click here to meet Kazakh reporter Borat.)
On the other side of the battle, however, is a man who stormed the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue one day before President Bush is scheduled to meet with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Addressing reporters, the in-character comedian said: “Jagshemash, my name Borat Sagdiyev. … I would like comment on recent advertisements on television and in media about my nation of Kazakhstan, saying that women are treated equally, and that all religions are tolerated — these are disgusting fabrications.”
Attributing the real-life Kazakh ads to a propaganda campaign by the “very nosy” country of Uzbekistan, Borat went on to threaten military action: “If there is one more item of Uzbek propaganda claiming that we do not drink fermented horse urine, give death penalty for baking bagels or export over 300 tons of human pubis per year, then we will be left with no alternative but to commence bombardment of their cities with our catapults.”
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The leaders of Kazakhstan wish Borat would just go away and that everyone would instead focus on the beauty of cities like Almaty, which they cite as having “sidewalk benches that seem perpetually occupied by trendy-looking teenagers.” The publicity effort for the country of 15 million went into full gear this week, beginning with a splashy, four-page, full-color advertising supplement in the A section of The New York Times on Wednesday.
The public-relations response was timed to coincide with the meeting between Bush and Nazarbayev. Contrary to reports in the British press last month, Nazarbayev has insisted he is not planning to complain about the movie to President Bush during his visit. After Borat’s White House-crashing performance, however, it seems hard to imagine that they’ll avoid the topic.
“All claims that our glorious leader is displeased with my film, ’Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,’ is lie,” the mustached character announced. “In facts, main purpose of Premier Nazarbayev’s visit to Washingtons is to promote this movie-film.”
When asked about the movie this week (for real), Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she was vaguely familiar with it but said no Kazakh leaders had called her office. “I didn’t [get a call],” she said. “No. No. No.”
In the movie, Borat is sent from Kazakhstan to the U.S. to film a documentary at the urging of the Kazakh Ministry of Information in an attempt to raise the country’s profile in the West. Most of the movie is similar to the skits on “Da Ali G Show,” in which Cohen, as the bumbling Borat, interviews people in character, saying and doing things — like wearing a barely there lime-green wrestling thong on a crowded beach or crudely insulting his host’s wife at a fancy dinner — that only a clueless foreigner could (maybe) get away with.
To the likely consternation of the Kazakh government, the movie got mostly rave reviews at September’s influential Toronto Film Festival, with Entertainment Weekly calling it one of the funniest, most entertaining satire films in years.
While MTV News couldn’t reach anyone at the Kazakh consulate in Washington, D.C., to comment, the first page of the Times supplement, titled “Kazakhstan in the 21st Century: Looking Outward,” certainly seems like an attempt at damage control in advance of the movie, or at least an effort to counter lingering negative press accounts about Nazarbayev’s clampdown on the country’s media outlets and allegations that he’s stashed millions in Swiss bank accounts.
The Times supplement featured an article titled “Conclave Calls for Religious Tolerance Among All Faiths Throughout the World,” which began, “A booming economy and rich natural resources are not Kazakhstan’s only claim to prominence among the Central Asian republics. Religious tolerance is another one of the hallmarks of this nation.”
Sure, you wouldn’t expect the country’s consulate to play Borat’s offensive country tune “Throw the Jew Down the Well” (sample lyric: “In my country there is problem/ And that problem is the Jew/ They take everybody money/ They never give it back”) for its hold music. But not even religious tolerance can explain why callers to the country’s Washington press office are instead subjected to a never-ending loop of an easy-listening version of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” rendered on what sounds like a $10 children’s keyboard.
The Times blitz didn’t come cheap. According to a staffer in the paper’s advertising department, the rate for a full-page color ad in the A section of the Times can run up to $100,000 a page. And considering the spread re-ran in the Thursday edition of the Times-affiliated International Herald Tribune, the ad campaign could have cost upward of $1 million. That’s not including a series of TV spots, which ran on networks like CNN. Under a bed of Middle Eastern-sounding instrumental music, a series of picturesque urban and pastoral scenes float across the screen, ending with an Australian-sounding voice intoning, “Kazakhstan, ever wandered?”
Last year, after Cohen’s appearance at the MTV Europe Music Awards (see “Coldplay, Green Day Win Big At MTV Europe Music Awards” ), Kazakhstan’s foreign minister accused the comedian of acting in a way that was “completely incompatible with ethics and civilized behavior” and even threatened to sue Cohen to stop him from further pranks. That was only after it was ominously suggested that Cohen was “serving someone’s political order designed to present Kazakhstan and its people in a derogatory way.”
Borat responded on his Web site by denying any connection with Cohen (in real life, an observant Jew), and saying he supported his government’s decision to “sue this Jew.” In fact, Borat continued to invite “captain of industry” to visit his home country to experience the abundant natural resources, hard-working labor and “some of the cleanest prostitutes in all of Central Asia.”
Now, Borat is furthering his cause by insisting that he and Nazarbayev are actually visiting Washington this week to extend invitations to their movie screening, as well as a “cocktail party and a discussion of closer ties between our countries at Hooters, on 825 7th Street.”
In addition to Bush, Borat also invited “other American dignitaries” such as “Donald Rumsfeld, Bill Gates, O.J. Simpson and Mel Gibsons.”
Whether or not the country can, or will, take Cohen’s joke, its foreign ministry spokesperson recently told the Times, “What we are concerned about is that Kazakhstan — terra incognita for many in the West — is depicted in this way.”
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[This story was originally published on 09.28.2006 at 4:44 p.m. ET]