Ethical Filmmaking, and the Cruelty of Borat

I’ve always felt very uncomfortable with Borat. I know I’ve said this before: I have no problem when Sasha Baron Cohen mocks public figures, as in his Ali G persona.

However, I find his skewering unsuspecting private citizens–even if they’re ignorant or bigoted–rather cruel. Plus, there’s plenty of evidence that he and his producers actively mislead his subjects before filming them. When they sign the disclaimer, they’re agreeing to a deceptive and unfair bargain.

I was interested, then, to read this Georgia Straight piece about the 2009 DOXA Documentary Film Festival, and a panel on the ethics of film making. It focuses on a documentary called Carmen Meets Borat, which discusses the impact Cohen’s antics had on a poor Romanian 17-year-old. From the film’s creator, Dutch director Mercedes Stalenhoef:

“These people were not informed of what they were participating in,” Stalenhoef observes in a call from Poland, where she is attending a film festival. “He [Cohen] told them, ‘It’s a documentary,’ and that’s what they thought. And then it was a comedy, and they were called nasty things. I think if you make a film, you should inform people so they can decide for themselves if they want to participate, and how much money they want for it.…They [the villagers] got not so much money [from Cohen’s crew]—like, three euros.”

And here’s a clip from the documentary:

I’m not sure where the new Cohen film Brüno will fall on the public-private paradigm. Attention-seeking fashion designers certainly deserve satire, but judging by the trailer, it looks like there are plenty of innocent victims as well.

Speaking of movies, I’ve been meaning to link to MovieSet’s coverage of this year’s Cannes Film Festival (caution, auto-playing video ahead).


  1. I’ve never enjoyed humour that involves humiliating or embarrassing people — practical jokes (whether Borat, Punk’d!, or many April Fool’s Day pranks) therefore don’t seem funny to me. I’m a very calm, non-violent man, but I think if I was subjected to Borat or another Cohen character and figured out what he was doing, I’d punch him in the face.

    Anyone considering pranking me about something might want to keep that in mind. 🙂

  2. When it comes to exploiting others just to get a laugh, I think it is disgusting. I have not seen the movie Borat nor do I wish to, and not to make some kind of statement, but I just fail to see humor in it.

    If everyone is properly informed of what they are contributing to then that is art. But trickery is deceitful and in my opinion does not equate to good humor or good ethics.

  3. One thing that people in the West don’t understand is that the village where Borat was filmed is a gypsy village, not an ethnic Romanian village. This misrepresents Romania in a way, since this is only one aspect and not the mainstream culture. Unfortunately, it hurts ethnic Romanians in the rest of Europe when they get blamed for something another culture has done (i.e. in Italy recently).

    Secondly, Borat hasn’t been the only one who’s taken advantage of the gypsies in Romania. I once had a similar experience to the cameraman in this clip, but when the gypsy family whose horse I took a photo of found out I was not a journalist, they were very nice and explained that the media always portrays them as idiots.

  4. I meant to mention a while back; I was at the screening for “Carmen Meets Borat”, and saw the filmmaker’s Skype forum afterword the film. It was interesting to learn the film did not, in fact, start out as a film project about Borat’s film, but was always going to be the story of Carmen. Borat essentially interrupted the village life, and thus took a prominent place in the film. The BBC did a shorter edit of the feature documentary called “When Borat Came to Town” though the director prefers her extended cut, naturally. I have been to Romania myself, and always wanted to tell a day in the life story of local gypsies; this film does a fine job at that. Certainly, there are many more such stories to tell!

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