I had heard that Sacha Baron Cohen - he of the grandmother in Haifa and the youth education trips from the UK to the Holy Land - mixed in a fair amount of Hebrew with his faux Kazakh in his box-office hit mockumentary Borat. I'd seen a clip of the movie's opening few minutes on YouTube, where he promises a one-armed neighbor (the genuinely disabled Nicu Tudorache) in his home Kazakh village of Kuzcek (actually Glod in Romania), in Hebrew, that he'll return from the United States with a new arm.
But I wasn't prepared for the fact that just about every "Kazakh" sentence Borat Sagdiyev utters in the entire movie is Hebrew - near-accentless, flawless, slang-filled modern Hebrew. My fellow Jerusalem audience members loved every word of it, heaving hysterically at each idiomatic pearl.
I had heard that one or two of the scenes in the film were unspeakably revolting, to the extent that nobody could quite understand how Baron Cohen wasn't required to cut them in order to get his "R" certificate.
But I wasn't prepared for (sensitive readers might want to avert their eyes for a few words) the big screen, in-your-face, gross and graphic wobbliness of the naked intimate-wrestling encounter between Borat and his obese producer/sidekick Azamat Bagatov. My fellow Jerusalem audience members screamed and roared and squirmed and half-covered their eyes and finally, out of breath, sighed with exaggerated relief when it was mercifully over.
I had heard that some of Borat was quite near the knuckle in exposing anti-Jewish sentiment among ordinary Americans. I feared the worst because I had seen an earlier Borat sketch, from Baron Cohen's TV shows, in which he delights an Arizona country and western bar with a guitar and vocals rendition of the alleged Kazakh standard "In my country there is problem," with its catchy verses ("In my country there is problem/ and that problem is the Jew. / They take everybody's money, / they never give it back to you.") and its memorable singalong chorus ("Throw the Jew down the well / so my country can be free. / You must grab him by his horns, / then we have a big party.").
But I wasn't prepared for the movie's early "running of the Jew" scene, in which the Kuzcek villagers hold a traditional pageant involving outsize-costumed Der Sturmer Jew performers and the gleeful killing of the unhatched Jew egg. My fellow Jerusalem audience members didn't laugh too uproariously at that one.
And like trusting pets who've been betrayed one time by an owner they had thought was going to take loving care of them, these Jerusalem viewers went very quiet when Borat and Azamat (played by Ken Davitian) check in to a bed-and-breakfast establishment run by a kindly Jewish couple (the real-life Mariam and Joseph Behar). What mischief, you could almost hear the audience thinking, is Baron Cohen going to make at the expense of this harmless husband and wife? Or, more accurately, what mischief is he going to make at the expense of their religion - his religion, our religion?
In fact, apart from reinforcing the gentle truism about hospitable Jews wanting their guests to eat heartily, Baron Cohen pokes little direct fun at the Behars in what were apparently spontaneous conversations. He reserves the negative stereotyping for scenes in their home when they are off camera - most repugnantly when he and Azamat throw dollar bills at bugs that have supposedly crawled under the door of their rented room. To Borat, steeped in his purported Kazakh anti-Semitism since childhood, the bugs are apparently the elderly couple transformed, their evil instinct distracted only with copious quantities of the green stuff that, in his pernicious conception, is every Jew's overwhelming motivation.
It is scenes like this in Borat - a huge commercial success in the US that had also raked in $86 million internationally as of last weekend - that, to me, highlight the film's troubling, even objectionable character. This is not, heaven forbid, to place the kosher-keeping, generally Shabbat observant, patently Jewishly concerned Baron Cohen anywhere near the humorless Mel Gibson (architect of the flagellation epic The Passion of the Christ) on the spectrum of movie-making damage to Jews. But, mixing movie genres again, he and we would so greatly have benefited from just a little of the sensitivity shown by the often similarly clownish Roberto Benigni in his rewarding and uplifting death-camp comedy Life is Beautiful.
Baron Cohen has argued that a motivation for unleashing his appalling Kazakh incarnation on an unsuspecting world was to expose anti-Semitism among members of the general public interacting with him - in this movie's case the American public, as filmed in the course of a cross-country road trip - and thus to guard against the spread of the disease.
"Borat essentially works as a tool," Baron Cohen told Rolling Stone in a rare and much-quoted out-of-character interview recently. "By himself being anti-Semitic, he lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudice, whether it's anti-Semitism or an acceptance of anti-Semitism."
Even indifference to anti-Semitism, the filmmaker rightly warned, enables it to flourish. "I know it's not very funny being a comedian talking about the Holocaust, but I think it's an interesting idea that not everyone in Germany had to be a raving anti-Semite," he went on, invoking the historian Ian Kershaw's analysis. "They just had to be apathetic."
But there are no members of the American public in that bed-and-breakfast bedroom with Borat, Azamat and the bugs under the door, no unsuspecting ordinary American folk garrulously venting anti-Jewish spleen for the rest of us to gasp at in horror and resolve to marginalize. Just Baron Cohen, his fellow actor Davitian, and his script, spewing comedy anti-Semitism all by themselves.
Is Baron Cohen, whether "running the Jew" in Kuzcek or here at the Behars' B&B - where Borat splutters that he can hardly see the Jewish couple's horns! - emphasizing his creation's foul and ignorant prejudices the better to have his audiences ridicule and reject them? If so, the question is which audiences does he have in mind? His film, after all, is playing far beyond the shores of overwhelmingly tolerant America (of which more later).
Remember, too, that his lead character, though shown defecating and masturbating publicly, is nonetheless rendered less than irredeemably loathsome; we are even asked to sympathize with him at various lowpoints. Can Baron Cohen be justly confident that his protagonist's dreadful caricaturing will do more good than harm?
BARON COHEN is a comedian - bright, inventive and intrepid. Depending on how much of the Borat footage was genuine and how much was scripted, he is also brave. It requires real guts to take the microphone at center field and tell a vast crowd at a Virginia rodeo that he supports their president's war of terror, run with that "joke" to bloodcurdling extremes and top off the performance by remaking the US national anthem as a paean of praise for Kazakhstan and of derision for all other nations. It requires real guts of a different kind to prance around before a global audience in that screaming green excuse for a swimsuit.
But the jokester who would prevent another Holocaust wimped out, nonetheless. Easy to play for fools an Evangelical Christian audience, swaying and clapping wildly in the grip of religious passion. But think of the truly needed alarms Baron Cohen might have set off for his audiences had he tried the same stunt in a mosque.
Easy to tease out fragments of racist rhetoric and attitude in the essentially decent American heartland. But there is far more fertile and treacherous ground to warn from in his home continent, not to mention in our region. No mass shift in tolerance for Jews looms threateningly in the United States of America. Parts of Europe, though, where synagogues are attacked, cemeteries vandalized and Jews are afraid to publicly display their religious affiliation, are a very different story, let alone vicious-cartooning Egypt and Holocaust-denying, would-be Israel-obliterating Iran. Indifference to the disease of anti-Semitism in some of these parts has long been superseded by the full-blown infection. Of course his movie would have been a lot less funny...
What Borat demonstrates, in fact, is the very opposite of the danger its creator would have us believe he wants to expose. However unwittingly, he has brought to the screen an America of remarkable tolerance and grace and earnest courtesy. Yes, there are the South Carolina college boys spitting nauseating garbage, the homophobic rodeo cowboy, the automobile and gun vendors whose politeness and desire for a sale outweigh any outrage at Borat's anti-gypsy and anti-Jew offerings. America, too, has its bigots and numbskulls.
But that rodeo crowd quickly grew offended by Borat's bloodlust. As he ratcheted up the ghoulish rabble-rousing, their enthusiasm rapidly waned - despite the fact that here was the man with the mike, the mood-setter, the ringleader clad in patriotic colors whose sentiments they were conditioned by experience to appreciate, endorse and applaud.
The black street gang whom Borat apparently expected to goad into some or other horrible act or utterance proved unthreatening, even likable.
The driving instructor whose prejudices he may have intended to reveal proved insistently decent. The etiquette coach and Alabama plantation dinner hostess proved adamantly helpful and understanding as he went to ever greater lengths to cause offense and revulsion, before they ultimately succumbed and called in the cops after he ordered in a "prostitute" (played by an actress). The evangelicals met his fake pain with genuine sympathy, accepted him, sought his salvation. The interaction between boorish Borat and average American in all these (seemingly unscripted) scenes made for potent comedy. But the racism and stereotyping were the manufactured creation of the mockumentary-maker; it did not echo in his subjects.
ALONG WITH the rest of the Jerusalem audience, I laughed plenty during Borat. But I worry about some of the global audiences for this film - about what they may regard as funny, and why. And I understand why some in the Anglo-Jewish community, as Baron Cohen has acknowledged, expressed concern that his earlier "In my country there is problem... Throw the Jew down the well" skit would encourage rather than highlight the dangers of anti-Semitism.
I wish Sasha Baron Cohen had worried, too, as to whether, in some parts of the world, at some level of consciousness, some audience members will internalize Borat's comic off-hand remarks and playacting about the Jews having planned 9/11, about those money-grubbing Jews, about this or that country having a Jewish problem. I wish he'd asked himself whether he, more than the Americans he filmed, risked reinforcing vicious and dangerous misconceptions. I wonder whether he sufficiently appreciated that while he would be given more leeway than a non-Jewish filmmaker, it might be wiser not to exploit it. Movies - big, smash hit movies like this one, watched with rapt attention by millions upon millions of people - have an incalculable impact.
Twenty years ago, when it could still be argued that potent anti-Semitism had drastically ebbed if not passed since the Nazis, perhaps my sensitivities would have been less acute. But not in today's world, with today's intolerances and indoctrinations, its historical revisionism and warped values and its ready resort to hate crimes of local and international impact.
Sacha Baron Cohen doesn't have to care. Again, he's a comedian, an over-the-top, determinedly envelope-pushing comedian, and this is just a movie - albeit "one of the greatest comedies of the last decade" in the adulatory words of his Rolling Stone interviewer. But he claims to care a great deal, claims this anti-Semitic, misogynistic and homophobic Borat character he's filmed is the shock treatment for a troubling indifference to those very traits.
But with real Middle East presidents with real bombs trying to persuade the rest of the world that it really does have a Jewish problem and that it would really be better off without a Jewish state, can Baron Cohen be certain that Borat is helping the side he wants to help?
Here in Israel, watching Hebrew-speaking, Jew-hating Borat, I have problem.