For those of you who weren’t alive in 2006 or are just pop culturally ignorant allow me to briefly explain how we got here. English actor Sacha Baron Cohen made a name for himself as a singular comic talent with characters like Ali G the suburban white kid appropriating black culture, Brüno Gehard the flamboyant Austrian fashion icon, and Kazakhstani journalist Borat Sagdiyev. These characters usually present themselves to the public as authentic people and not the covert performances they are. The humor comes from the public’s genuine reactions to the character’s outrageous behaviors. There’s nothing funnier than explaining humor so let’s get past this.
Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan premiered during my first semester of college. The film’s premise is Cohen’s character Borat travels to America intent on making a documentary for his country that will exemplify why America is the greatest country in the world. It’s full of Cohen making celebrities and randos look foolish by mocking their hypocrisies and customs. Such is the nature of Cohen’s particular brand of satire. Calling Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan anything other than a seismic cultural moment is an understatement. It’s infinitely quotable, brilliantly performed, and above all else unbelievably hilarious. You couldn’t get away from Borat references and impressions in the subsequent years. Even now hearing “My wife!” or “Very Nice!” in a Borat voice is too common. It’s this ubiquity that makes Borat Subsequent Moviefilm‘s success so surprising.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is basically the same set up. Borat needs to travel to America where Cohen’ll mock celebrities and randos who’ll inevitably do or say something outrageous on camera. But the bits only work if the marks aren’t aware they’re being duped which becomes a problem the film addresses on screen. The very success that would green light a Borat sequel is also holding back its production. Yet the movie exists, how did they do it?
That brings us to Maria Bakalova’s performance as Borat’s daughter Tutar, the best part of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Tutar’s stowed away on her father’s second trip to America where she hopes to find a husband. Her performance is integral to the film’s success not only because she’s a comedic powerhouse but because she serves as Cohen’s surrogate in places where Borat would be too recognizable. Her performance around everyday people rivals Cohen’s and she takes to it like a duck to water. It can’t be easy to stay in character under that much stress for that long but she does it, bravo.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is funny and worth watching as entertainment but I expect it’ll be worth studying for another reason. The film was shot between 2019 and 2020 which means much of its production happened during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. This is an incredible piece of history Cohen and his crew captured in their film, the transition between the before-times and the postdemic. It’s astonishing. The movie miraculously captures the pandemic’s onset from people walking in public and being less than 6ft from one another without masks to empty city streets as the world became a ghost town.
If that wasn’t enough time capsule magic, it somehow authentically captures the ignorance of disgruntled rural-white America mere months before the January 6th insurrection. During the brief quarantine part of the film Borat hunkers down with two conservative rednecks in a cabin who’re waiting out the pandemic together (how’s that going?). These two ignorant and influenceable men spout off conspiracy theories about Liberals, Democrats, and the Clintons with the zeal of abortion-clinic-picketers. The appear to spend hours on the internet looking at misinformation sites and gobbling up propaganda and conspiracy theories faster than Covid-19 spreads. If these two men were actually unaware of Borat’s schtick, and genuinely believe the things they expressed in the film, then this is a truly invaluable snapshot into the psyche of a sizable portion of Americans during the pandemic.
I thought reviewing this movie a year after I saw it would be a worthless exercise. After all, Borat is the pop culture cicada. He pops up every 17 years or so, makes a lot of noise for a few months and then disappears. Much like the cicada, no one much cares to talk about it a year later. It’s already done man, live in the now. But I think this might have been the very best time to review Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Nearly a year after the election, 9 months since the capitol insurrection, this is a great time to review the mentalities that led us to where we are now. After the events of Jan 6 the far right in the US displayed their usual mix of schoolyard excuses. “It wasn’t us, it was ANTIFA, pretending to be MAGA, but also if it WAS us we didn’t do anything wrong. Just don’t prosecute us.” They’re like a kid who just stabbed their brother and thinks “Oh god I’ve gone too far, please don’t tell Mom about this, you’re fine, stop crying, you’re fine, I didn’t cut you that badly!”
I imagine Cohen started this project expecting to lambast political hypocrites like Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani while capitalizing on the center-right Democrat’s displeasure before the 2020 presidential election. I think he absolutely succeeded, but I would be hard pressed to believe he expected to successfully document so many important aspects of that particular moment in time the way he did. I don’t think Borat Subsequent Moviefilm has any chance of surpassing the success of the first film but in a very specific way it’s already more significant.