I am eagerly awaiting the new Borat movie coming out tomorrow, and had been looking up information about it. In that process, I found out some sketchy information regarding the first film, and it needs to be amplified. I am a huge fan of Sacha Baron Cohen, and love how he speaks truth to power and uses his humor and characters to get people to reveal their true colors. That being said, I was always vaguely curious about the town he filmed in for his first movie–the one purported to be in Kazakhstan. I know Kazakhs weren’t happy about being portrayed that way, but it actually led to an uptick in international tourism for their country. That’s good, I guess.
I never really questioned that scene too deeply when I saw it. I knew it wasn’t real. It’s a caricature of small-town life in Eastern Europe. I figured that they were locals who were hired to pretend to be his town- and kinfolk. What I didn’t know until recently was that it was filmed in Romania. Many of the people shown were not aware of the way in which they and their village were being portrayed. They didn’t understand the release forms, and they were very much NOT in on the “joke.” Not only that, they were very poorly compensated for their time and hospitality.
If you’re interested, you can learn a bit about the village, Glod. There is a documentary covering the incident called, “When Borat Came to Town.” It’s about an hour long and can be viewed on YouTube.
Glod is a very small, economically challenged village in Romania, populated mainly by Roma people –an enthic group with origins in Northern India, living in diaspora. Stop using the term “gypsies.” It’s derogatory. The Roma are some of the MOST discriminated against and marginalized people in every country they live. When we learn about the Holocaust, we often hear of the 6 million Jews murdered. Well, Nazis also murdered millions of Romany people.
Glod does not have running water as of 2006 when the film was made. If they have since gotten water and sewers brought in, I couldn’t find that information anywhere on the internet. There’s almost no information about Glod at all. What I did find during my research was that the inhabitants of Glod were compensated anywhere from about $4 to $70 for their appearance in the first Borat movie. This was a movie that cost $18 million to make, and earned $262 million worldwide.
Once the villagers saw the film and realized that they were the butt of Cohen’s joke, they were of course, very angry. They felt powerless against the faceless monolith of “Hollywood” to defend their village and people.
At that point, some foreign lawyers show up in town, offering to sue 20th Century Fox and Sacha Baron Cohen on their behalf, dazzling the locals with the possibility of a $30 million payday if their case is a “great success.”
These lawyers don’t seem to know their asses from their elbows. They offer to bring a few representatives from Glod to the Hollywood premier of Borat to make a huge spectacle and confront Cohen on the red carpet. These dipshit lawyers can’t manage to get proper travel visas. Instead, the Glodians are dragged off to London, where they are ushered (unsupported by the lawyers or any translator) into the quiet, unassuming London offices of 20th Century Fox to, I suppose, serve them papers for the suit. The Brits are understandably confused, uninterested, and dismissive. The case is eventually brought to a court in New York, where it is promptly dismissed for having charges that are too vague. The lawyers vow to refile, but ultimately the case goes nowhere, leaving the town of Glod twice-wronged, twice-insulted.
In comedy, you can either “punch up” or “punch down.” Punching up is when you ridicule people in positions of higher power and privilege. Punching down is when you ridicule people of lesser power and privilege. Sasha Baron Cohen is guilty of punching down, and punching down hard on the people of Glod.
I remember when he pulled a stunt as the Bruno character, pretending to sexually attack Eminem. Eminem appeared to be very upset but it was later revealed that he was in on the joke. Why was he in on the joke, but not the people of Glod?
Cohen could have chosen not to punch down. He could have told the people of this village, “Hey, I’m going to do some really embarrassing and off-color stuff here. It’s only acting, I do respect you. If you don’t want to participate, we won’t film you. I will handsomely compensate those who do agree to be filmed in return for their good humor about the situation. I will put in a disclaimer about your town at the end of my movie, thanking you for your support and encouraging tourism.”
Very simple and respectful. If the town of Glod didn’t agree, I’m sure there would have been some other economically depressed area that would have welcomed the influx of money and notoriety.
If Sacha Baron Cohen were looking to redeem himself, he should make a sizable donation to the village of Glod to improve their infrastructure, create a library, a school, or other much-needed public project.