Borat is not suffering from a shortage of publicity or controversy ahead of next week’s Australian premiere. Yet Australian audiences might not be aware of the controversies following in the film’s wake, none of which have dented the US audience’s enthusiasm.

Opening weekend in the States, for example, was certainly NOT hurt by protests from the Kazakh government, which ran ads in the New York Times to correct some of the falsehoods in the film. Film studio execs must have been slapping their foreheads saying, “Why didn’t we think of that?”

Many of those appearing in the film are now claiming they were duped into participating. Lawyers for 20th Century Fox are fending off a lawsuit from two US students who say they were given alcohol, encouraged to act outrageously and told the footage would not be seen in America.

Russians won’t be seeing the film in cinemas at all after censors said the film “humiliates ethnic minorities and religious believers.” There was even a protest in Russia over the Jewish jokes in the film at which 37 people were arrested. The film wasn’t officially banned, but the distributors have made a “commercial decision” to keep Borat for a DVD-only release.

Sacha Baron Cohen – Borat’s creator – and the film’s producers have also upset residents of an impoverished Romanian (not Kazakh) village, who say they have been portrayed as “a backward group of rapists, abortionists and prostitutes, who happily engage in casual incest.” According to The Daily Mail:

They claim film-makers lied to them about the true nature of the project, which they believed would be a documentary about their hardship, rather than a comedy mocking their poverty and isolation. Villagers say they were paid just £3 each for this humiliation…

And American journalists have not been immune to Borat’s charms either. As Joel Stein points out in the LA Times:

Male journalists get suckered into high-fiving him over the death of his wife. They laugh with Western arrogance over the fact that Borat’s father is named Boltok the Rapist…

But the most important question in “Borat” — the one that makes it a cultural turning point — is about whether the act of tricking unsuspecting victims and sharing it with millions of people is cruel or funny. If privacy is a 20th century holdover, do we all deserve to have our inner nature outed by Colbert or “Jackass” or YouTube?

It’s not a question the studio is rushing to find answers to. The film cost all of $US18 million to produce and has hauled in nearly $US70 million in its first two weekends, proof in this case that the end justifies the means.

Peter Fray

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