On the road with Borat Sagdiyev

The world's most famous fake Kazakh journalist tells the 'Post' about his impressions of America.

borat 88 298 (photo credit: Twentieth Century Fox)
borat 88 298
(photo credit: Twentieth Century Fox)
After months of online buzz, fictional Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev finally arrived on movie screens across the US and Europe earlier this month, breaking American box office records in its first weekend and becoming that rare hit to improve its box office take in its second. The film follows Borat, the comic creation of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, as he leaves his native Kazakhstan to film a documentary while traveling the United States. As he zigzags across the country, Baron Cohen, in the guise of Borat, interviews real people in real situations, with results that are consistently comical and eye-opening. The character's broken English and decidedly un-American behavior generates strong reactions among those he meets, often exposing the unspoken prejudices and hypocrisies that lay dormant in American culture. Borat first became a phenomenon in the UK on Baron Cohen's TV comedy series Da Ali G Show, in which the character exposed the anti-Semitism, misogyny and racism still lurking in that society. Baron Cohen's innovative work has brought him two BAFTA awards, and his already-growing fan base expanded earlier this year with the release of the $150 million-grossing Talladega Nights, in which he played a gay French racecar driver opposite Will Ferrell. His latest film, the full name of which is the purposefully unwieldy Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, has been a critical favorite among American film critics, and features Baron Cohen speaking nearly fluent Hebrew each time his anti-Semitic hero is meant to be speaking Kazakh. It grossed more than $26 million in its opening weekend on just 800 screens, more than any other film in history to debut in fewer than 1,000 theaters. The film took in over $29 million in its second weekend, and is expected to make over $100 million in the US alone. Baron Cohen, who stayed in character during the entire shoot for Borat, has for months insisted on giving all interviews in character. (Rolling Stone earned what will inevitably be considered a major scoop by getting Baron Cohen to break character for an interview published in the US late last week.) In the lead-up to the film's American release, Borat spoke with The Jerusalem Post about his career and latest project, explaining what made him uniquely suited to star in a documentary for his fellow Kazhaks. Israelis will have a chance to see the film after it opens here November 30. "My profession television reporter. I second most successful in all Kazakhstan," Borat explains. "I also have work in past as gypsy catcher, ice make and in computer maintenance. I paint the [computers'] outsides and remove dead birds from their pipes." From those humble roots, Borat rose up the ranks of Kazakh broadcasting, receiving his big shot at fame after being invited to make his American documentary. "One years ago, Kazakh Ministry of Information send me to US and A to make reportings that would help Kazakhstan," Borat recounts. "We want to be like [America]. America have most beautiful womens in world, for example Liza Minnelli and Elizabeth Taylor. It also center for democracy and porno." Jay Roach, who produced Borat and directed the Austin Powers movies, says he was fascinated by Baron Cohen's work in the movie. "I think what Sacha does in this film is revolutionary," he says. "He's created a believable, hilarious, fish-out-of-water character. Sacha takes Borat into dangerous predicaments with real people who have to believe Borat is authentic. "Whatever these real people do in the scene changes the direction of the story," he continues. "It's insanely funny, even though he only gets one take for every performance." The film, which has inspired editorials in such unlikely places as The New York Times, led Roach to believe Borat would be different very early. "We saw an opportunity to do a bold, subversive and fresh film," he says. "We transplanted the reality format of Da Ali G Show, which has Sacha in character with real people, and created a story to support a feature." Baron Cohen's insistence on staying in character has only heightened curiosity about the real-life comedian, who was born in London to Jewish parents and was educated at Cambridge. Asked about Baron Cohen's Jewish background, which includes a year on an Israeli kibbutz as a teenager, Borat says, "First, I like to say I have no connection with this Mr. Cohen and I fully support my government decision to sue this Jew." Pushed further, he says, "I am the son of Asimbala Sagdiyev and Boltok the Rapist. I am the former husband of Oxana Sagdiyev. My hobbies are disco dance, table tennis and also taking photographs of ladies ... without their knowledge." (His sister, he explains proudly in the film, is "number four prostitute in whole of Kazakhstan.") Though an outline for the movie was drafted, no script was written, with the storyline depending in part upon the reactions of the ordinary Americans Baron Cohen met. The film begins with a grand send-off from Borat's "Kazakh" village (the scene was actually filmed in Romania), with the character then continuing on to the "US and A" to begin work on the documentary. He's accompanied for part of the trip by his obese, ineffectual producer, Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian), who says he "got involved because I am very experienced in industry of film and television - in fact during last 20 years I have personally watched 27 programs. I also got job because I am only producer in Kazakhstan." Borat traveled to the US and A in grand style: "We fly Kazakh Airways. Azamat go in hold, with luggage, animals and Jews." Larry Charles, a creative force on the TV series Seinfeld, Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm, joined the film as director. Like Roach, Charles was a fan of Baron Cohen's previous work. "Sacha as Borat was always real, believable, complex and spontaneous. During our creative meetings, I was talking to both Sacha and to Borat, which was disconcerting but fun. I understood why Sacha did this: He has to be in the moment yet still be detached and self-aware. He managed to strike a delicate balance." The production was true guerilla-style filmmaking, shot by a crew of eight including Baron Cohen and Charles. Borat begins his cross-country odyssey in "New Yorks," where he has first-time encounters with a subway car, an elevator and feminists. Much of Borat's cross-country drive took place in an ice-cream truck, with the crew traveling to Washington, D.C., California, and much of the American South and Southwest. At several locations, the filmmakers' hit-and-run style attracted the interest of law enforcement officials, and in Washington, D.C., and encounter with the Secret Service made national headlines. Borat says he's wiser after his journey. "Along my travelings, I learn many new things about America. For example that it no longer legal to shoot at Red Indians," he says. "Once again I apologize with all my heart to the staff of the Potawotomi Casino in Kansas." Wherever Borat touched down, he left a shaken populace in his wake. After making a lasting impression at a gay pride parade in Washington, D.C., he moved southward, earning applause at a Virginia rodeo by telling the crowd that Kazakhs "support your war of terror!" In a later scene reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project, the reporter runs for his life after learning that his hosts at a private bed-and-breakfast are Jewish. Parts of his journey reminded him of home. "While were in the South, we passed by a group of soldiers re-enacting the Americans Civil Wars," he says. "It very similar to the Kazakh re-enactment of the Tishniek Massacre, which we do every year by traveling to the town Tishniek and massacring them." Many tense moments are captured in the film, but not everything could be included, Borat says. Among the practical concerns that arose during filming, he says, included "finding film in Mississippi that would fit our 1912 Krasnogorsk Super 13mm camera." Borat couldn't have been happier when his film was finally ready for the US and A, but he notes an earlier version that had already opened in his native country. "This movie have already been release in Kazakhstan and was blockbusterings," he exclaims. "It take top spot from Hollywood movie King Kongs, which had been number one film in Kazakhstan ever since it was release in 1932." His message to the public: "I hope you see my movie, but please be warn that since it contain foul cursings, needless violence and a close-up of a man's bishkek, it have been given most strict certificate in Kazakhstan, meaning no one under age of three will be able to see it. My film have been very controversial in my country because of amount of anti-Semitisms in it; however, eventually our censor decide there was enough and allow its release." Speaking in the lead-up to the film's US premiere, Borat expressed excitement in characteristic form that it would finally reach the big screen. "My movie finally coming in America!" he says. "High five!"