Kazakhstan’s UK ambassador is upset with Borat

I had a feeling the Borat movie was going to cause a stir but now it’s become official. Erlan Idrissov is Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the United Kingdom and he has penned an attack on the film for The Guardian at Comment is Free:

Humour can be used to defuse tensions and heal divisions – as Tony Blair demonstrated to brilliant effect at the Labour party conference. But if it exploits ignorance and prejudice it can have quite the reverse effect.

I fear that the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, the creator of Borat Sagdiyev, whose new movie opens here next month, does not understand this. Baron Cohen possesses a great comic talent and remarkable inventive powers. So inventive, in fact, that in creating Borat he has also created an imaginary country – a violent, primitive and oppressive place which he calls “Kazakhstan”, but which bears no resemblance to the real Kazakhstan.

An “imaginary country” that bears no resemblance to the real one? May be that’s because it is imaginary. But wait, there’s more:

Why has Baron Cohen chosen Kazakhstan as the vehicle for his comic talents? Kazakhstan is the size of western Europe. Far from being a backwater, it is set to become one of the top five oil producers in the next decade; in the past six years it has had an annual growth rate of about 10% and, over the past three years, the proportion of those living below the poverty line has fallen from 25% to 16%. There is growing appreciation of Kazakhstan’s importance in the fight against terrorism and of its role as regional economic and political pace-setter.

But, sadly, it is still the case that few people in Britain or America know anything about Kazakhstan or can even locate it on a map. They are in no position to judge whether Borat or his movie is remotely credible or fair. Baron Cohen exploits this ignorance to the full.

We are an easy target. Borat could have been made the citizen of a country with a truly awful record on human rights – say Afghanistan in the days of the Taliban. But that would have been risky for Baron Cohen. Many Kazakhs who have seen Borat on television have been offended and incredulous. But the critics of my country, including Baron Cohen, are more likely to receive an invitation to address their concerns at an expenses-paid conference in Kazakhstan than they are to receive a fatwa.

I don’t actually think Sacha Baron Cohen is a critic of Kazakhstan. He is merely making a joke at the expense of it. It is an important distinction to make, as only a total and utter moron would actually take the Borat movie as a genuine depiction of the country. It is deliberately outrageous for comic effect in how it presents the country and its citizens. It is also worth noting that for much of the film Americans are the butt of most of the jokes as the main action takes place there. Will they be complaining in this manner once the film is released next month?

But Mr. Idrissov goes on:

Some British friends who know Kazakhstan tell me that the misrepresentation is on such on absurd level that I should not be concerned. I am tempted to reply: if the only things that millions of people knew about your country originated in the anarchic and slanderous imagination of a TV comedian, wouldn’t you want to see the record put right?

British caricatures have been a staple of many Hollywood movies, often popping up as sneering villains like Charles Dance in The Last Action Hero or Jason Isaacs in The Patriot. As a Brit, do I think or care that people will take these characters to be representative of Britain as a whole? No, I don’t.

But let’s leave Sacha Baron Cohen aside for one moment. The ambassador is clearly unimpressed with his comedy and his new movie (even though it isn’t clear whether he’s actually seen it). What does he make of the UK’s biggest media outlet, the BBC? They have this to say about Kazakhstan in a BBC News profile:

…poverty is still widespread and Kazakhstan continues to face major economic challenges, particularly with unemployment and inflation. At the same time, an elite group of people have grown very rich since independence through privatization and other business deals which opposition figures allege to have been corrupt.

The same profile discusses recent elections:

Elections in December 2005 returned Mr Nazarbayev for a further seven-year term with more than 90% of the votes. The opposition protested that the ballot had been rigged and OSCE observers declared it to have been seriously flawed.

And the media:

Press freedom is enshrined in Kazakhstan’s constitution, but media rights monitors say the privately-owned and opposition media are subject to harassment and censorship. In 2004 the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists identified a “growing pattern” of intimidation of the media.

Insulting the president and officials is a criminal offence; the private life, health and financial affairs of the president are classified as state secrets. The government controls the printing presses and most radio and TV transmission facilities. It operates the country’s national radio and TV networks.

The president’s close associates, including his eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, and son-in-law, have benefitted from the privatisation of the former state media. Dariga heads the influential Khabar Agency which runs several TV channels.

I certainly wouldn’t claim to be an expert on Kazakhstan but the BBC are making some serious points here. Are they being as “slanderous” as Sacha Baron Cohen? Or are they discussing a state which has a serious problem with the dissent and free speech that is the life blood of any comedy?

> Erlan Idrissov’s article at Comment is Free
> BBC News profile of Kazakhstan
> The Economist with a fact sheet on Kazakhstan
> Matt Deegan with his thoughts on Borat (like me he has actually seen the film)
> Borat on Myspace