By Daniel Lindvall.
What’s the difference between a comedian who joked about goat-fucking, dirty-bearded Muslims in 1975 and one who does the same in 2012? The first one was racist, the latter only ironic. That’s why we can now laugh ourselves silly at the same amusing stereotype, since we are really laughing only at our own prejudices. Though, he is quite hilarious that toothless zoophile.
A few years ago Sacha Baron Cohen travelled to the Romanian village of Glod, where a population made up mostly of Roma lived in material misery. Out of their lamentable living conditions and their bodies deformed by poverty he fashioned, in Borat, a fictive version of majority-Muslim Kazakhstan as a nation of imbecilic anti-Semites who whored out their sisters and lived with their cattle. The film then moved on to the United States where the very politically incorrect Kazakh reporter Borat (Cohen) was meant to provoke our western prejudices out into the open in a series of semi-documentary episodes.
But really, the film just kept kicking downwards and through open doors. The usual suspects – religious fanatics, right-wing Republicans, gun dealers, rednecks, and a few inebriated white students – were put to shame, whilst the focus was often put, once again, on anti-Semitism (in the established, narrow, sense of that term, of course). Comfortable viewing for the Mainstream, Politically Correct, Free-Market Liberal Islamophobe. For the population of Glod it was, reportedly, less comfortable to see themselves portrayed as utter morons, buts of a joke they, as non-English speakers, could not understand during filming.
Cohen is a grand-child of a survivor of the Nazi holocaust. He often speaks, in interviews, of the dangers of indifference to anti-Semitism as being equally as dangerous as the outright hatred of Jews. If another holocaust was to take place in Europe in a near future, then the Roma population is certainly the number one candidate for a victim. Here is an abscess of prejudice difficult to probe even for the smug MPCFMLI. But Borat showed nothing but indifference.
Borat was a mix of fact and fiction. The Dictator is a fiction film. But apart from that it treads the same path, at least during the first seventy-five out of its eighty-four minutes. The main character, Aladeen, is the Israel-hating dictator of the fictive North African Republic of Wadiya. He’s a cross between caricatures of Gaddafi, Mullah Omar and Iran’s Ahmadinejad, with a touch of Fidel Castro thrown in for good measure. After a handful of scenes taking place in Wadiya – Aladeen buys sex from flown-in movie star, inspects his nuclear arms program and has a handful of people executed, including the corpse of his body double for failing to answer a question – the story moves on to New York where the dictator is scheduled to speak at the United Nations in order to prevent an attack on his country.
Aladeen is then kidnapped by a neocon torturer, escapes, is mistaken for a political dissident protesting against himself, and ends up in a fair trade grocery store (located in an idyllically multicultural Brooklyn) that has specialised in employing refugees. Here he receives a series of more or less successful lessons in respect for human rights, masturbation and love. Whilst, incidentally, also demonstrating to the store’s owner, and his love interest, that no one runs a business better than a dictator. To make a not so long story even shorter, Aladeen does finally get to make his speech to the world. And this is where Cohen suddenly turns his irony head on at the core of MPCFLMI hypocrisy. He gives the coolest UN performance since Che in 1964. From there on Cohen puts every foot right in the cleverest final ten minutes of a comedy I can remember. All is forgiven. For the time being.
Daniel Lindvall is Film International‘s editor-in-chief.