by Elizabeth De Barros
The year 2020 saw great chaos worldwide with the development of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the midst of this upheaval was the appalling state of American politics, the egregious abuses of power by the elected Republican administration on full display. Supporting this administration were routes of perpetuated misinformation, as biased news outlets and covert methods of foreign political intervention warped the reception of facts for countless US citizens. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm aims to remedy any remaining lack of clarity among US citizens and global onlookers, serving as a thoroughly informative picture within its outrageous antics. The film continues the storyline and mockumentary styling first established in its predecessor Borat but intensifies its critical tone to tackle the uprising of hateful political rhetoric at the hands of the Republican presidency. Borat once again arrives in America, along with his daughter Tutar, to deliver a gift to then-Vice President Michael Pence on behalf of his homeland Kazakhstan. The situation does not go as planned, and as they improvise the two characters navigate the reigning political climate charged with such prominent themes as racism and sexism. The film presents as a “genre film”, very deliberately constructed upon its genre (Neale 18). It pushes the genre’s capacity to not only depict the nation’s political status but to meaningfully communicate the dangerous ramifications, as well, classified as a pure political film within the political film typology (Haas 18). In its mockumentary presentation, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm effectively hones the genre’s dual nature to aggressively criticize and display an unobstructed view of the Republican administration’s political ideologies and the societal state its reign has left America in. The film’s documentary aspect imbues it with politically informative value, its unbiased capture providing a revealing perspective on the violence at the root of Republican ideologies. The film’s mise-en-scène elements crucially enhance its ability to assume this informative role. At the same time, its comedic facet enables an unrelenting criticism of the societal turmoil that it captures, serving as the primary vehicle through which political intent is communicated.
2. Tool to Disseminate Political Information
The film’s mockumentary style in depicting real political events leads to its function not only as a work of entertainment value but also a politically informative tool for its audience. The documentary aspect of the mockumentary genre is maximized in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, as it objectively showcases numerous instances of political content in their unfiltered state. Often these scenes of content are provoked to some extent by the character of Borat, which fulfills the comedic side of the genre. Nonetheless, the individual and collective responses of unsuspecting participants reflect the authentic ideologies and beliefs that they hold. By including such footage, the film creates inherent objectivity within its comedic theme; this objectivity effectively enhances the film’s ability to deliver its viewers a politically-enlightening experience. This function is prominent through such scenes of political content as Borat’s undercover entrance into the Republican conference featuring Michael Pence and later his, again undercover, attendance at an anti-COVID lockdown rally.
The conference scene provides the audience with an effectual look at prominent Republican sentiments. It begins as Borat ponders how to covertly enter the conference, his solution apparent when he wanders in wearing a KKK costume (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm 00:36:07). Most notable in the scene is a lack of protest from any attendees or staff against this costume despite the violently racist ideology that it represents. The passivity in the film’s capture of inaction is what informs its objectivity; in an uncontrolled environment, the Republican conference attendees find no moral objection to the display. It is from this objective perspective that viewers can observe the telling inaction and make some undeniable conclusions for themselves regarding the unspoken political stance of both Republican leaders and followers.
Further exhibiting the film’s mechanism of informative capture is the scene in which Borat and his two newfound friends attend an anti-COVID lockdown rally to contact Tutar. Baron Cohen again uses his character to push the moral boundaries of participants, and once more those boundaries are shown to be non-existent. As Borat performs his song containing racist and violence-promoting lyrics, the rally’s attendees grow increasingly entertained upon hearing the lyrical content. Amusement at the referral to COVID as the “Wuhan flu” and antisemitic gestures in response to the debating of murderous Holocaust acts plainly show viewers the violently racist rhetoric held by these Republican followers (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm 01:11:39-01:12:40). This gives the film’s audience an unobstructed look at what occurs at such gatherings, exposing for those unaware the set of beliefs that the political party essentially represents and encourages.
The film’s mise-en-scène plays an integral role in the informative manner through which the depicted political content is captured and delivered. The framing throughout the film is very informative itself, consistently capturing the reactions of unaware participants to Borat and Tutar’s actions. This is achieved through mostly medium camera shots, allowing the audience to interpret not only the dialogue but also the physicality and facial expression within interactions. The camera’s angle remains at-level with the characters and all subjects; this lends the mockumentary the neutral perspective characteristic of a documentary. This neutrality enhances the film’s objectivity in presenting real-world political events to its audience, allowing viewers to comprehend the footage without an imposed bias. The mockumentary form’s refrain from bias adds an additional dimension of political intent to the film’s method of presentation, implying that the political content around which the film revolves requires no modification of perspective to understand its gravity and repercussions. The eye-level medium shots additionally contribute to establishing an immersive observational perspective for viewers, from which they can remain engaged with the footage and continuously process its content and intent. Deepening this viewer engagement is accomplished by the use of close-ups in select cases, most notably on a most enthusiastic individual during the anti-lockdown rally (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm 01:11:00). This close-up serves to magnify the content of that scene and, in its fixation, allows the content to speak for itself.
3. Comedy to Criticize
A significant method by which the film communicates political intent is the use of the comedy genre as a tool for active criticism. The comedic aspect of the mockumentary is rooted in Borat’s exaggerative portrayal of those Republican-aligned political ideologies that the film itself criticizes (Corner et al. 36). The film’s capacity for criticism is enhanced by its reality-based mockumentary form, through which this exaggerative portrayal is performed in naturalistic settings and therefore can be assessed in relation to American citizens. Thus, it is not the portrayal itself that primarily informs the film’s criticism but the context within which they are performed that effectively crafts political intent. It is the interpersonal dynamics revealed in these moments that the film showcases to increasingly highlight the amoral extremism characteristic of Republican beliefs. Upon the film’s opening, Borat’s expression of racist and sexist beliefs is so overt that it presents as a type of caricature. As he enters into American society, it is observed that sentiments on par with this caricature are openly expressed by citizens within the Republican realm. The dissolving of the boundary between the comedically inane portrayal and real social conduct creates a shocking dissonance that delivers the film’s primary political intent. This apparent overlap acts to engage viewers in understanding the political reality within which the US finds itself. This dissonance crafted through mockumentary establishes a critical perspective through which viewers can perceive the political content occurring on screen. Beyond the viewing experience, the perspective it offers can fundamentally alter viewers’ perception of subsequent Republican political events. In doing so, this critical political intent can encourage individuals to more actively assess the political structures around them and be politically participative to ensure their improvement.
Extending the comedic exaggeration as a vehicle for criticism is the incorporation of morbidity which this extreme tone allows. This is of note when Borat plans to commit suicide; not owning a gun, he “went to the nearest synagogue to wait for the next mass shooting” (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm 00:58:55). This shockingly morbid statement, equating attendance in a place of worship to a death sentence, pushes the boundaries of comedy to criticize rampant US gun violence. A statement that should be so absurd is statistically a reality; the shock that this reminder so plainly delivers to viewers serves to denounce the Republican Party’s depravity in enabling such a violent climate, specifically through its chronic inaction on reform.
Another strength of the film is its delivery of political criticism through the creation of juxtaposition between dialogue and factual or situational context. This is seen numerous times in Borat and Tutar’s comedically obtuse reverence toward Republican Party politicians. This reverence stands in stark contrast to the actions of these politicians, the political content provided in these moments a clear indicator of deep corruption among them. This is first apparent in the film’s opening, which establishes the film’s critical moral stance. Borat begins by demonizing the Democratic Party and praising the Republican leader Donald Trump as a montage of photos plays; in them, the then-president is seen shaking hands with numerous politicians who hold global reputations of corruption and self-serving ruthlessness in their leadership (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm 00:02:15). The comedic dissonance of Borat’s praise in conjunction with the images of concerning US political affiliation acts as the film’s initial criticism of the administration, targeting its fundamental motives. This juxtaposition continues to deliver a message regarding the Republican leadership’s depth of corruption. Tutar and Borat specifically consider alternate party members with close ties to Trump in order to carry out their plan; upon a successive listing of them, Borat concludes that they have all been involved in illegal matters, and now are either arrested or incarcerated (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm 00:39:45). This continues as Borat praises Rudolph Giuliani, their plot’s final target, noting his “dignified” nature when footage proceeds to show him verbally demeaning others in a professional setting (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm 00:40:50). The stark contrast in depicting political context in conjunction with comedically unfit dialogue clearly and impactfully delivers the underlying intent with which these scenes are charged. The film’s message emphasizes the unprofessional and self-serving nature of the Republican Party, its members willing to break the very laws they are supposed to dutifully uphold for their own personal gain.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm functions within its mockumentary style to not only entertain audiences but to act as a politically informative and critical piece on the state of American politics, showcasing its consequences on American society. This is achieved through the duality of the mockumentary genre, which brings together documentary and comedy aspects to respectively depict real political content and present it within a moral framing. This intention is highly informed by the film’s mise-en-scène, which contributes to its revealing mode of documentation which exposes the reality of Republican ideology. In this regard, the film serves as an important tool to dispel potentially remaining doubts among viewers about this matter, contributing to a greater awareness of the currents of corruption that run through the US political structures. The political content and intent communicated through its form help to elevate the collective political consciousness, evoking within the audience a critical perspective that can more effectively evaluate the actions of political systems. This encourages the empowerment of citizens to dispel self-serving motives within governing structures and to ensure these structures serve its public, as intended, through active political participation.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Directed by Larry Charles. 20th Century Fox, 2006.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Directed by Jason Woliner. Amazon Studios, 2020. Amazon Prime.
Corner, John, Kay Richardson, and Katy Parry. “Comedy, the Civic Subject, and Generic Mediation.” Television & New Media, vol. 14, no. 1, 2013, pp. 31-45. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/10.1177%2F1527476412453947
Haas, Elizabeth, et al. Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films. Taylor & Francis Group, 2015. Neale, Steve. Genre and Hollywood. Taylor & Francis Group, 2000.