The makers of the Borat sequel wanted to bait officials in Kazakhstan into a tetchy reaction for some free publicity. For now, the officials appear reluctant to comply.
Initial messages on the Twitter feed were designed to be purposely, if comically, bland, so as to lend them a vague air of authenticity. One on September 28 reads: “The Kazakhstan Trade Minister is currently conducting a tour of major export distribution outlets overseeing expansion of our export capabilities.”
The game was given away when the account descended into more familiarly Borat-like territory on September 30, with a tweet about the U.S. presidential election debates: “We are unable to currently follow debate because of poor WiFi signal despite recent govermment [sic] purchase of broadband account. Please inform us of developments!” Subsequent tweets escalate the absurdism with a series of profanity-laced swipes at Uzbekistan.
The fake Instagram account, meanwhile, congratulated Donald Trump on winning a debate against his rival, Joe Biden, that had yet to begin.
This prompted the press secretary for the prime minister’s office, Zarina Nurlanova, to note drily in a statement on October 1 that these accounts were fake and that only verified social media accounts should be trusted.
The irritation has been more pronounced among social media users, with the hashtag #cancelborat being used to charge Borat creator Sacha Baron Cohen with insulting the whole country. One typical remark from Twitter user @alushaalua describes the yet-to-be-released Borat sequel as “unbelievably disgusting” and says that she hates the movie for spreading “a bunch of lies about my nation.”
Others have affected indifference. “I live here in Kazakhstan and I don't give a damn how they show our country. If people have brains, they will understand that Kazakhstan is not the same as what is shown in the film," wrote @vegetable_plate.
Defenders of the Borat character have made the case that although the depiction of an offensive and fictional Kazakhstan of racists and degenerates is the launching point for the humor, it is the unsuspecting American and British interviewees who go along with Borat’s crude antics that are the real ultimate butt of the joke.
This is of little consolation to Kazakhstani nationals living abroad who have had to put up with years of tired and repetitive jokes, however.
“As a Kazakh citizen living abroad, I’ve been on the end of so many comments and so-called jokes based on the Borat movie. They are tasteless jokes that only make me feel uncomfortable. I don’t want a second wave of xenophobic assumptions about me and my country,” wrote one Facebook user.
The reaction from Kazakhstan’s authorities looks more circumspect on this occasion than at the time of the 2006 release of Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
Roman Vassilenko, at that time a government spokesman, did not disguise that Kazakhs were wounded by Borat’s grotesquery.
"I am offended, and the people of Kazakhstan are offended by the choice," he said.
Erlan Idrissov, then the Foreign Minister, reflected in an op-ed on what he saw as the hypocrisy of the filmmakers.
“While it is clearly not permissible in modern Britain to caricature certain ethnic groups or to ascribe racist or sexist views to them, it is apparently permissible to present the people of Kazakhstan as a bunch of rabid Jew-haters and serial sexual molesters,” he wrote in an article for the Guardian.
While there was no explicit ban on releasing the 2006 movie inside Kazakhstan, theaters applied their better judgement and elected to refrain from offering showings.
With time, though, attitudes ostensibly changed, and tourism officials claimed that Kazakhstan’s sudden rise to notoriety had helped boost visitor numbers. President Nursultan Nazarbayev even sought to claim he was happy to go along with the joke.
"This film was created by a comedian so let's laugh at it, that's my attitude," he said at joint press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in November 2006. "There's a saying that any publicity is good publicity."
The marketing team behind the sequel (full title: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan) hope more anger from Kazakhstan may raise the movie’s profile before its October 23 release on the Amazon Prime Video platform. Lessons may have been learned, however.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.