I have some new thoughts about the first Borat movie.

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.

Italy.

I wanted to share with you a little bit about a trip I took to Italy last spring.   The sights, experiences and musings of an all too brief vacation in three parts, the first of which concerns…

Rome:

Umbrella PinesGosh how I loved those umbrella pines!

Busy, beautiful, very open (geographically).  I didn’t feel hemmed in here at all as I do in some major cities, and as I did in Florence and Venice.  Crossing streets is really for the fearless or suicidal–you must follow the locals and see when they cross and stick closely behind them!  The art and the ancient architecture are of course impressive and beautiful but I was filled with such a sense of sadness and horror while visiting the Colosseum.  It feels like visiting a Holocaust museum.  So many people love these beautiful old ruins but it’s hard to forget the savagery they were witness to.  The food was good, but surprisingly, I’ve had much better at home, and with infinitely better customer service.  I hate to say it, but in general, Italy was very rude to me.  The nicest, most helpful and friendliest people hands down were other tourists.

Florence:  Oh lord, it was such an adventure coming into town in the middle of the night.  I had a map but it was nearly useless as the city maps in Italy don’t correspond exactly to the streets’ locations and names.  In general, street names and addresses aren’t well marked.  Best to have a hand-held GPS if you aren’t great at map reading and don’t have an innate sense of direction.  Once daylight came, I was fine as I could read markings and got my compass bearings with the sun and learned landmarks.  The art and architecture, again, will blow your mind.  One of the highlights of my time in Italy was when I ventured outside the city for a Tuscan wine tour.  The chiantis and olive oils we had were amazing and the lunch break in the middle of our trip at a small family owned restaurant was the best food I ate my entire time in Italy.  I (unknowingly) had cow tongue and really enjoyed it.  Again, I met a lovely couple of Americans on the tour and they recommended coming back to Italy and just spending some time away from the cities in the coastal villages of Cinque Terre.  Well, more ideas for the next trip.

Venice: Again, got into town in the middle of the night and this time with no map at all.  Just an address and a weird sort of description of how to find the tiny hotel I was staying in taken from a fellow traveler on TripAdvisor.  I met some charming French and French Canadian tourists who helped me find the right Vaporetto line to get to Rialto Bridge.  From there, I followed the directions as best I could and wandered a bit for about 20 minutes.  During my peregrinations, I was struck by how eerily quiet it was.  After turning along several streets and cutting across lots of little squares, I heard the welcome and unmistakable noises of the only bar open in that section of town.  They, unfortunately, had no idea how to direct me to my hotel.  I miraculously found a few more little signs and landmarks and made it down a suffocatingly small alley which ran past the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo.   Never have I experienced a city with streets so incredibly narrow.  I could put out my arms and touch the buildings on either side.  Again, rude ass bitches will not move aside even though you have baggage to carry.  In addition, you will kick yourself with wet feet if you forget your wellies and raincoat!  Be sure to change into them before you have to walk around town.  Just expect there to be flooding and know that you will get wet.  There was some deeper flooding down a few of the streets and platform walkways were erected on metal frames with plywood.  The wonderful thing about Venice was that it was easy to wander and get lost, then keep walking to find myself back where I started or at least where I had been before.  When daylight hit, I wandered about 5-10 minutes and found myself smack in the Piazza San Marco.  Easy as pie.

If you’re into walking tours, download the Rick Steves audio tours.  They are pretty well-paced, comprehensive, and well-recorded, in addition to being completely free.  On that note, budget a lot more than you think you’ll need for food and shopping.  In general, you are going to spend serious bank.  Probably more than locals due to some shady business practices, and also just because, and I hate to say it, the cities seem to be “money grubbing” in general.  Consumer goods are waaaaay over priced in many places, and restaurant food costs significantly more if you want to sit at a table versus standing to eat at a counter (so awkward and uncomfortable, especially for a klutz like myself).  There are also some additional charges such as a “table cloth” charge if you are sitting at a table.  In Rome, I was charged 20 euro (about $27) to sit and eat a gelato and drink a coffee.  I was exhausted from walking so there was no way I was going to stand any longer but jeez, that’s really a bit much.  Even New York City and London aren’t that bad.  Another warning: don’t go too photo crazy.  Just look.  I mean really look.  Soak it in and experience the locations.   And seriously, don’t be the doofus with your iPad in front of your face photographing/video recording the whole trip.  Take a few pics for memories, but there are so many beautiful, professional photos taken of any landmark or art that you’re better off downloading/buying those prints and making an album or scrapbook than trying to capture everything.

Now a list of some of the key sites and activities I really enjoyed:

Rome – Palatine Hill, Forum, and Colosseum (in that order).  Get your tickets online beforehand or up at the Palatine Hill so you don’t have to wait on lines at the Colosseum.  Capitoline Hill, Piazza Venezia, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City and Sistine Chapel (we got up late and caught the tail end of the new Pope’s Easter benediction.  The crowds were quite a sight.), Pantheon, Piazza Navona,  Piazza della Minerva, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, The Keats-Shelley House (right by the Spanish Steps), Piazza del Popolo, the Villa Borghese gardens and Zoological gardens (didn’t get in to see the Borghese Gallery), National Museum of Rome, the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art (which even has a room entitled “Is it art?”).

CIMG1344

Really, who makes a floor out of mirrors?  That’s just asking for trouble.

Florence – Uffizi Gallery, Gallery of the Academy (really, it’s nothing you haven’t already seen at the Uffizi, but you’re only going there for David, who is hands down the most impressive sculpture I’ve ever seen.  I will say though that the room containing unfinished sculptures is also a fascinating insight into his artistic process), Museo Galileo (for the science and math buffs among us), Palazzo Medici Riccardi which had an exhibit called “The Dalí Universe in Florence,” Basilica de Santa Maria del Fiore (il Duomo), Ponte Vecchio, and the Piazza dell Mercato.

Venice – just wander all over.  You will be surprised and impressed.  I enjoyed listening to the Interpreti Veneziani doing the works of Vivaldi.  Also, as expensive as shopping abroad was, I found the best stuff at the best prices in Venice.  Kinda opposite to what every travel guide said.  This was the only place I didn’t feel like I got totally fleeced.  Of course, don’t eat or drink anything at a location along the Piazza San Marco before you know the price.  You are asking for it.

A bit of an aside: I always found it funny that there are alternative names for geographical locations.  There’s a name for it made up by every other language and then there’s the name that the residents of said country call it themselves.  Why make up new names for countries and their cities? By the way, Chinese don’t call it China. They call it something like “zhong guo-ah ” meaning “Middle Kingdom.”  I’d be interested to do an etymological research study on how we got to calling it China.