Since the Me Too movement came to the forefront of public consciousness in 2017, Hollywood has seen the release of a spate of powerful feminist films, from Ursula McFarlane’s Harvey Weinstein exposé Untouchable (2019), to the subversive rape revenge thriller Promising Young Woman (2020). But it’s the crude, hilarious and unexpectedly dark surprise sequel to the 2006 smash hit Borat! (that introduced mankinis to the world) that truly captures the insidious and shocking prevalence of rape culture in the US today. Writer and star Sacha Baron Cohen weaponises his wicked sense of humour against the mainstream America that made him a household name, and with the aid of co-star Maria Bakalova and a bad wig, he unapologetically holds offenders to account for their actions. Not bad for a film that features a monkey porn star.
Borat 2 – or to give the film its full, preposterous title, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, reintroduces audiences to Borat Sagdiyev fourteen years later after finding infamy through his American “documentary”. The years have not been kind to Kazakhstan’s number one television journalist, who has been serving a sentence of hard labour for bringing shame on his country with the film (a meta depiction of the real Kazakhstani government’s displeasure over Borat!). Seeking redemption, our hero seeks to restore his nation’s honour by delivering the then-US Vice President Mike Pence a very special gift: Borat’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Tutar.
Much had changed since 2006 when Borat was released, and for better or worse, Trump’s America was a very different beast to that of George W. Bush’s. But as Borat 2 swiftly proves, things haven’t gotten any less awful. While racists, conspiracy theorists and the MAGA movement are duly skewered, this time around the film zeroes in on America’s problem with women and its wider indifference to the exploitation of minors. Its documentary-esque style is interspersed with scripted scenes that tie the footage together into a semblance of a narrative (albeit an absurd one) and even provides Borat with a character arc of sorts: can our protagonist truly defeat his inner sexist and accept that a woman’s brain is not, in fact, “smaller than a man’s”? It’s a good thing that Borat 2 is so funny – if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.
Since Da Ali G Show premiered over two decades ago, English comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has made a career from trolling unwitting targets with faux ’interviews’ conducted by his alter-egos; be they a blunt smoking English chav, flamboyant Austrian fashionista or the self-proclaimed ‘number one journalist’ of Kazakhstan, Cohen’s creations each have a gift for extracting extreme, or at times shockingly blasé or candid, responses from their targets. Borat does so with his overt anti-Semitism, prehistoric view of women and propensity to detonate social niceties at every opportunity. In fact, the character is so over the top that Cohen’s jig would have been up immediately if it weren’t for the ignorance and xenophobia ingrained in certain Americans and their assumption that, say, bringing a plastic bag of faeces to the dinner table, or hosting chickens in a New York hotel room, was normal Kazakhstani behaviour.
Yes, Cohen tends to pick low-hanging fruit when it comes to his targets – in Borat 2 for example, he infiltrates a pro-gun, COVID-denying rally called ‘March For Our Rights’; a gathering that doesn’t exactly represent the best of America – yet the veteran prankster’s artfully crude style elicits comedy irrespective of who he targets or what direction the set piece goes. Because Cohen infuses Borat with genuine pathos and an almost child-like curiosity we can forget just what a truly repulsive character he is. We can laugh at his ignorant schtick because we know that underneath the fake moustache and trademark grey suit is a well-educated, proud Jewish man and outspoken human rights advocate.
What’s especially disturbing about Borat 2 is that Borat frequently fails to shock, embarrass or outrage the men he encounters. Instead, sexist comments and the objectification of his own daughter – an apparent minor (the actress was 24 years old at the time) – are met with chuckles, winks and sly encouragement. When Borat requests a cage “big enough to keep his daughter in”, the hardware store owner reacts with total indifference; while at a Southern debutante ball, Borat asks a middle-aged attendee how much he would pay for Tutar. “Five-hundred dollars,” the man slyly answers, in front of his own teenager daughter. Soon after, another interviewee blatantly expresses his sexual attraction to Tutar right in front of the man he believes to be her father.
Sacha Baron Cohen and his team have often found themselves in precarious situations in the pursuit of laughs – the comic recalls “nearly being killed” by a furious mob of American nationalists at a rodeo during the filming of Borat! – and in this feature the guerrilla filmmaker almost got more than he bargained for; most notably, when Borat met Pastor Jonathon Bright at the Virginia Crisis Pregnancy Centre.
The Crisis Pregnancy Centre is not your usual women’s health clinic but a ‘pro-life’ pregnancy centre with a hard-line prohibition on abortion. Borat accompanies Tutar here following a convoluted set-up that leads the Pastor to believe the fifteen-year-old girl is pregnant with her father’s baby. (It’s all an elaborate misunderstanding – the film’s not that dark) What starts out as an exposition of the hypocrisy of religious absolutism becomes increasingly disconcerting when Bright not only insists on the abortion but also tells the parties that it’s “not important” how the pregnancy happened. Not that he’s without empathy; Bright reassures Borat, a man he believes to have raped his underage daughter, “It’s not your fault”.
Borat 2 may not be the most sensitive film to tackle rape culture. You wouldn’t expect subtlety from a film in which the final scene depicts a ‘running of the Americans’ festival in which exultant Kazakhstani villagers banish a COVID-riddled Trump impersonator, followed by the caption ‘Now vote’. But in an age of misinformation and duplicity, where the worst chauvinists bold-facedly declare a “tremendous respect for women”, Borat 2, while at times an uncomfortable watch, draws out this misogyny in a candid fashion and forces audiences to confront just how prevalent it is and how close to the surface it bubbles.
At the very least we all owe Borat 2 a small thanks for thoroughly pissing off Rudy Giuliani. In the words of Borat himself, "Great success!"
– Joanna Psaros