Matt Sayles / NYT / Associated Press

Matt Sayles / NYT / Associated Press

February 26, 2021

‘Borat’ is Realer Than Reality

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I haven’t screamed at a film in a long time. When I do, it’s typically a horror movie. But Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is its own kind of horror movie. You’re scared not because of what’s happening on screen, but because of what’s happening outside your own front door.

We live in a world where white supremacist groups are endorsed by the president, where our minds are controlled by monopolistic tech corporations who amplify disinformation, where a pandemic has pushed working families to the brink of death while the rich get richer. When we take a step back to consider it all, we should be completely terrified. Nothing feels real anymore. But we rarely take that step back. It’s too scary.

Subsequent Moviefilm forces us to take that step back. In this sequel to the 2006 cringe mockumentary, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, auteur and star Sacha Baron Cohen ventures beyond mere shock value to deliver a story that transcends the film medium. Here, Baron Cohen’s titular character is not just a bumbling, offensive stereotype with a talent for getting people to reveal parts of themselves they normally never would on camera. Instead, Borat’s second journey to America articulates the story of 2020 in a way no other film could.

The film occupies a mystifying space between reality and fiction. Naturally, Borat himself is not real; he is a character invented by Baron Cohen. However, the world Borat inhabits is rather real — the America he visits in 2020 is dramatically different from the 2006 America he remembers. As a result, Baron Cohen’s filmmaking adapts accordingly.

With nobody wearing masks, it’s apparent that filming began pre-pandemic, likely happening in January or February. However, about halfway through the film, there’s a plot twist: Borat suddenly finds himself wandering empty streets, confused and alone, until he runs into a man who informs him of COVID-19.

Most good films have plot twists; the halfway turning point has been a pillar of dramaturgical structure since at least Aristotle’s time. However, this is not a plot twist that could have been scripted. Few, if any, Americans saw the mid-March lockdown coming. In a way, Subsequent Moviefilm was constructed more like a documentary, editing real world events into a cinematic story. But could you really classify a film following a fictitious character as a documentary?

Examples of the film’s generic agnosticism abound: How did they stumble upon two QAnon supporters who willingly let Borat stay with them? Did they feed people lines, or did people’s candid reactions coincidentally fit into Borat’s story? At the heart of these mysteries is a question Baron Cohen no doubt delights in leaving unanswered: What is real, and what is fake?

By producing a narrative that blurs the line between reality and fiction, Baron Cohen may be merely “holding up a camera,” rather than a mirror, to our highly produced reality-show society, as The Atlantic’s David Sims suggests. But in doing so, the film paradoxically presents a reality realer than our own: an honest reality, in which nobody can be under the illusion that anything is okay. 

Borat’s world is unambiguously a theater of the absurd. There is no barrier between the scripted, photographed, edited world of the film and the social collapse of the real 2020. Indeed, it isn’t difficult or shocking anymore what Borat can get people to say — plenty of Americans really do believe Hillary Clinton drinks children’s blood, and they will readily admit it.

While other reviewers might claim that our numbness to the absurd makes Subsequent Moviefilm fail in its mission to shock, I disagree. True, Subsequent Moviefilm may not be as funny as its predecessor, because to laugh at the absurd requires a sense of security. Audiences watching the first Borat could guffaw at unbelievable antics because what was happening on screen was obviously “not real.” Meanwhile, 2020 viewers do not have this same sense of security; the absurd has become the ordinary. 

However, Subsequent Moviefilm is still shocking like any good horror movie. It’s shocking to witness all the real-life tragedies of 2020 unfold in a relentless 90 minutes. Contrary to Sims’s assertion, Baron Cohen is still holding up a mirror to society: The production mysteries underlying this film mirror the ever-growing uncertainties Americans are experiencing in the post-truth era. Americans consuming polarized media diets can no longer agree on the same fundamental principles of real versus fake. Amid the confusion, one thing is certain: America is not a democracy, it’s a reality show.

Jeremy Coyle is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].