In his monthly series, Matthew Fledderjohann (MAE) discusses his adventures and misadventures teaching English Literature abroad. Read his previous post on Kazakhstan here. This post, written in response to a comment on his previous story, explores Kazakhstan’s response to the movie Borat.
I lived in Kazakhstan for twenty-seven months and I never once met Borat Sagdiyev. The closest I ever got to his global celebrity was seeing the pluralization of his name on a sign outside a commerce building in city of Shymkent. “Borats”—posted above an uncertain advertisement depicting an extreme close-up of a high-heeled foot. But what did it mean? The word itself is neither Kazakh or Russian. Is Borats a brand of luxury shoes? A nearby store? A maladjusted attempt to cash in on a Western phenomenon? It was all a disconnected jumble. I took a picture of the sign, memorializing my brush with fame, and moved on.
Of course, since Sacha Baron Cohen decided to use Kazakhstan as the cultural context for his 2006 movie, the country itself has had a much harder time of simply moving on. Many citizens view Mr. Cohen’s antics as a direct affront to their national pride. They love their country and are quick to defend it. Their counter-arguments reference the rapid industrialization of their capital city, their economical allocations of natural resources, and their supposedly stunning education statistics. Not to mention the fact that Kazakhstanis don’t smile or like facial hair. And did you know that the supposed home-country footage for the film wasn’t even shot in Kazakhstan? That was Romania.
There is a large sense of disconnect regarding the Great Nation’s response to this parody. For starters, many of the Kazakhstani-critics are so busy vehemently opposing the movie that they miss its intentions. I tried to explain to my offended neighbors that the real joke is on good ol’ American ignorance and xenophobia. Cohen could have just as easily used Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, or Azerbaijan. Of course, then my neighbors were taken aback by the idea that their country was thought to be expendable.
But, the fact is, Cohen chose Kazakhstan, and in so doing, he accomplished what no other event (the USSR space program, the Virgin Land Campaigns, the excommunication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn) ever has; he put Kazakhstan on the map. This particular expendable trope has been brought forward into the American consciousness. Now the world at least knows the place exists.
The idea that any publicity is good publicity has continued to be hard for locals to get behind. They still don’t like the movie. In fact, a Kazakh director is in the process of making a response-film. My brother, Borat will supposedly express the true essence of Kazakhstan in order to build up its reputation. There are rumors that it will feature a comedic plot line in which Borat’s brother will be impregnated by a goat. Which brings us back to that disconnection between offended townspeople, unwitting popularity, high-heels in Shymkent, and the fact that this country still has no idea what to do with Borat.