Borat: Cultural Learnings of America to Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan obviously has succeeded recently in becoming The Talked About Film and earned the box office grosses to prove it. But, as often happens when money piles up, the lawsuits have started pouring in, as high-powered lawyers try to shame Sasha Baron Cohen for allegedly hoodwinking the innocent by claiming he was shooting a documentary—meaning, of course, that the footage would not be seen by many people. So far, Edward D. Fagan (who famously got Swiss banks to pay Holocaust victims $1.25 billion) is representing the Romanian town of Glod, which is seeking $30 million and a reedit of the film to cast it in a better light. “I think they are contending that this was presented to them as a documentary, but this was a movie that was being shot, and it was never presented as a documentary,” Fox spokesman Gregg Brilliant said of the lawsuit. The other major lawsuit is from two of the fraternity guys who make an idiotic drunken appearance. They claim that Cohen’s production crew took them to a bar to loosen them up before their participation in what they were told would be a documentary shown outside of the US. “They were induced to agree to participate,” says their lawyer.
While nonfiction film techniques have a long history of intersecting with fiction features, Borat may become one of the most high profile—and infamous—examples. While the kind of character immersion “reality” filming that Cohen undertook has its roots in the kinds of “breaching experiments” undertaken by sociologists including Erving Goffman and Harold Garfinkel, in which social norms were broken (mostly in public) and the ensuing reaction was noted, Cohen obviously wanted to go a step further. His rather brilliant insistence on playing dumb regarding taboos and getting uncensored reactions to his characters behavior has even led to a quasi-backlash from some critics in the The New York Times and The New Yorker, who admonish him as a bully who picks on Red State mentality without going after Starbucks drinkers and Whole Foods shoppers (which, actually, would have been pretty funny but not as damning, right?).
While all of this is pretty amusing in itself, the fallout from Borat does bring up some important issues regarding satire, which has increasingly blended with news/documentary a la The Daily Show and thus influencing high-profile films like Borat. Cohen and his crew actually did pose as a Kazakh news team to get many of the interviews and the Fox studio behind the film reportedly let them create several phony production companies to coordinate shoots and cover releases. While the essence of the legal arguments will come down to whether the signed consent forms will stand up to suggestions that the participants were improperly duped, Fox maintains that the suits have no merit and that the release form signed by the participants noted the film would be in a “documentary style” for worldwide release.
“Documentary style”? Didn’t Fox say it wasn’t presented as a documentary? Using that term emphasizes how the expectations of the nonfiction genre have changed, and creating false production companies and slick releases does influence the cultural understandings around documentary film. Half or more of shooting documentary footage involves getting the access to the interview or the place and that often requires a delicate dance where one side has to convince the other, through appealing to ego or historical importance, to participate and sign a release. Sometimes it’s easier if you have a known name of a network or studio behind you, whereas other times it’s easier if you are totally independent. But the use of documentary practices such as setting up interviews, coordinating shoots and getting releases are integral to making a nonfiction film. And, for better or worse, it usually comes down to trust of some degree between the filmmaker and the participant. It remains to be seen if the Borat fallout will only make people more wary than they already are to participate in documentary film. Hopefully it won’t. But if it does it will be a loss that far outweighs any Cultural Learnings of America that Borat provides.