Borat Worldmaking and Market Post-Truth: When Money Trumps Everything Else

Image credit: Martijn van Exel, Flickr, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In this post, Dr Rodanthi Tzanelli explores the ethical and aesthetic controversies surrounding the making and evolution of Borat-induced tourism advertising.

Art and the new spirit of capitalism

Critiques of the ‘new spirit of capitalism’ often focus on the ways art has been transformed into a money-making machine of innovation. The idea of artmaking as a creative activity orientated towards negotiations of what is beautiful seems to some too démodé. The outrage that used to surround ‘kitsch’ and ‘camp’ has subsided in most Western societies. However, their implication in image management and ‘public decency’ continues to matter, because it intertwines the politics of race, gender and mobility even in the Western world. Especially when camp involves humour, you must make sure that your audience understands your intentions: there has to be an ‘in-group affinity’ in your joke, if you want to keep all your teeth intact.

However, kitsch and camp seems to be very much a Western middle-class sport – even cosmopolitan irony of this type has its limitations. This becomes amplified when style is transferred onto the big screen: whilst I find the suggestion that media messages are adopted and acted out uncritically very problematic, I find equally disturbing the argument that it is fine for creative industries and their designers to release hate speech for us to consume, just because the message is interpreted in different ways by different audiences.

Borat’s ‘isms’: camp irony or hate speech?

The release of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan in 2006 produced such a controversy: the film’s misogynistic and racist content infuriated human rights campaigners. One may argue that Cohen adopted an ironic stance towards questions of inequality so as to shock and thus problematise audiences. Personally, I doubt that this was the case: ‘camp’ humour usually has some pointers in its content; it lets audiences know that excess involves political satire – that it does not want to normalise hate speech among those who find it OK to insult others. Above all, such irony is directed against sources of power in a consistent fashion.

I began with a note on markets: significantly, award-winning Joker (2019) director Todd Phillips resigned from his post as Borat director in early 2005, citing ‘creative differences’. However, contemporaneous events suggest otherwise, as at precisely the same time, in a Virginia rodeo event, Cohen jokingly told spectators in his Borat alter-ego that ‘US President George W. Bush should drink the blood of Iraqi civilians he kills’. This was a bad selling strategy that did not fit the American market so close to the 9/11 tragedy. Moreover, it was dangerous to make such jokes during the resurgence of racism in the US. All the same, Anglophone audiences watched the film, whereas Kazakhstan promoted its ban. It is both ironic and cosmopolitan that ‘Borat’s’ sexist and racist humour offended native sources of power: the film made Cohen a moving target, because Kazakhstan’s post-Borat image re-building cost a lot of money. The rebound was organised around a multi-million dollar ‘Heart of Eurasia’ campaign, involving the production of feature films on the country’s mythic past, to counter the Borat effect. Heritage, not insulting popular culture, had to win the day.

Satire has been the weapon of the weak since time immemorial. However, we must be able to tell when profit displaces the content of the message. It did not take long for the Kazakh government to realise that the Borat effect was beneficial for the country’s economy, as it generated film tourism. Truth regimes are pliable to contingency and the design of tourism can work wonders on the ways the content of a message is manipulated and used.

Post-truth and the new spirit of capitalism

We should not lose sight of the fact that Borat’s toxic content was normalised because it allowed Kazakhstan to reap the benefits of the tourism it induced. Although national(ist) valorisation trumped the film’s sexist and racist subtext, elsewhere in the world, human rights objections did not change. I therefore suggest that we deal with the formation of a ‘post-truth’ in Kazakhstan: what was sanctioned by Borat’s cinematic advertising as ‘true’ was shaped by a discourse of tourism development, based on image-building. Otherwise put, the ‘truthfulness’ of what Borat is and does was verified contingently, in particular (national and international) contexts by particular institutions, which either safeguard specific political interests (e.g. Kazakhstan’s reputation in the world) or global economic mobilities (film and tourism markets). Hollinshead talks about ‘worldmaking’ to debate this institutional inscription of truth: our tourist worlds are made by someone, who does not always consider in their design everybody’s wellbeing. Usually, this someone does not invent the message, but constructs it out of lingering stereotypes and ideas that circulate in sociocultural contexts.

Designing such things takes time, and the pressure on artists and designers is immense: they must innovate, and they often do so at all costs. If the first phase of Kazakh tourism image-building involved the complete suppression of ‘everything Borat’ in the country’s international advertising, the second phase elucidated a volte-face conforming to the new spirit of capitalism. We deal with two separate controversies that merit unpacking: the first connects to the recently released Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, and that fact that it displays a clear political orientation its ‘prequel’ lacked. In the second film, the fictional journalist depicts again his homeland as misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semitic, but the narrative arc ‘turns the horns’ on the current US political establishment. Mayor Giuliani’s depiction as the lewd interviewee and constant attacks on Trump map a different strategy from that of the original Borat: where in 2005-2006 concrete anti-Republican messages had to be imported from outside, from Cohen’s public performances, now they are embedded in the cinematic character. Journalists were quick to observe that this is more a redirection of marketing – we cannot lose sight of the fact that the second film’s Borat is still happy to pimp his daughter or that he thinks that the Holocaust was a great idea.

The second phase of tourism image-building in Kazakhstan is instructive of the ways the new spirit of capitalism colonises the moral sphere, endorsing complete destabilisation of meaning, so as to adjust political narratives to the circumstances. In an unprecedented convergence of international and national interests, the second film’s unflattering depiction of the country was suppressed.  Kairat Sadvakassov, the deputy chairman of Kazakh Tourism, said in a statement to the Huffington Post that adopting Borat’s catchphrase in the new tourism campaign ‘offers the perfect description of Kazakhstan’s vast tourism potential in a short, memorable way.’ This way is framed in a promotional video, which shows tourists hiking with a selfie stick, (“Very nice!”), drinking fermented horse milk (“Mm, that’s actually very nice!”), marvelling at the architecture (“Wow, very nice!”) and posing for a photograph with Kazakhs in traditional dress (“That’s very nice!”). ‘Very nice’ is a phrase that belongs to some of Borat’s most indecorous cinematic moments that I am not interested in repeating here.

The campaign was designed by Stanford-educated American Dennis Keen, who had travelled to the country on a high school exchange, and now lives in Almaty, where he gives walking tours. Although lifted from its virulent cinematic context, the campaign tells us something about the ways memory is manipulated in markets. It is one thing that it took an outsider to achieve that, another to consider how his design was appropriated by Kazakh tourism. All along, and across the cinematic and tourist domains of production, it has been fine to both employ sexist and racist language and use them in the valorisation of Kazakhstan’s tourism and national image. I see nothing progressive or acceptable by any decent individual in either of these decisions.

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Dr Rodanthi Tzanelli is Associate Professor of Cultural Sociology at Leeds and one of the Editors of Northern Notes Blog. Her current work focuses on tourism mobilities and philosophies of travel, with particular refence to the ethics and aesthetics of tourism design.