Let me get this out of the way first: Sacha Baron Cohen is a genius.
You don't create a global commerical phenomenon (twice), make a stunning rate of return — Baron Cohen's first film"Borat," which cost $18 million to produce, grossed $261 million — and torment multiple governments without serious brains lurking behind your fuzzy mustache or sequined underpants.
Ukraine was the latest to take offense at Baron Cohen's work. The country this week banned his new film "Bruno," a mockumentary about a fictional and flamboyantly gay fashion reporter who aspires to be "the biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler."
Ukraine's culture ministry proclaimed that Bruno featured an "artistically unjustified exhibition of sexual organs and sexual relations, homosexual acts in a blatantly graphic form, obscene language, sadism, (and) anti-social behavior which could damage the moral upbringing of our citizens."
This schoolmarmish manner is nothing new for Ukraine.
Kiev also leapt to protect the morality of its citizens three years ago when it banned Cohen's first film, "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," which starred a fictional reporter from Kazakhstan who bumbled across America in search of his true lust, Pamela Anderson.
The reaction of Kazakhstan's government to Baron Cohen's portrayal of its people as wife-stealing, Jew-hating yokels who guzzle horse urine (the Kazakhs prefer kumyss, which is made of fermented horse milk) was even more proactive.
To refute the potential stereotypes it worried the film might create, the government ran four-page ads in The New York Times and U.S. News and World Report and aired clarifying TV spots on CNN and an ABC affliliate in Washington, D.C.
It also dispatched embassy spokesman Roman Vassilenko to dispute Borat's various depictions of Kazakhstan, detailed here by NPR:
Borat: Kazakhstan is the No. 1 exporter of potassium.
Vassilenko: Kazakhstan's oil industry is responsible for the country's economic boom.
Borat: Prostitution is one of the major industries in Kazakhstan.
Vassilenko: Women in Kazakhstan are more likely to be doctors, lawyers and teachers than prostitutes.
Borat: Kazakhstan's space program launches chimpanzees and toddlers into orbit.
Vassilenko: Kazakhstan participates in the International Space Station program, and hosts the station's docking site in its steppes.
Borat: Kazakhstan's embassy spokesman Roman Vassilenko is an "Uzbek imposter."
Vassilenko: Vassilenko is a proud patriot of Kazakhstan. His country is home to many migrant workers from its northern neighbor Uzbekistan.
Of course, Kazakhs and Austrians (or Uzbeks) aren't the real targets of Baron Cohen's bracing humor. The joke here is mostly on Americans — or at least those who display their ignorance or intolerance toward a variety of topics — from homosexuality, to geography, to misconceptions about foreigners.
That same approach has been used by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the animated TV series "South Park." In 2004, the two wrote and produced "Team America: World Police," which skewered, among other things, America's full-throated response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Team America, jouncing around as puppets, destroys the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triumphe, and shoots up the Great Pyramids in its efforts to keep Arab terrorists and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il from destroying the world.
Surprise, surprise: Pyongyang also called for a ban, in the Czech Republic (the film wasn't distributed in North Korea), saying Team America "harmed the image of the country." The Czechs politely declined.
So what does all of this say about globalization and commerce?
First, it shows that there's a ton of money to be made in the " global mocking" business. The glorious financial performance of "Borat" speaks for itself. "Bruno" pulled in $30.4 million at the box office in its first weekend alone. And "Team America," while initially a disappointment at the box office, has since become a cult classic on DVD and across the web.
It also shows that humor, like wisdom, knows no borders. All three films drew enormous crowds around the world, despite the thin-skinned official reactions they produced. Clearly, provocation appeals across cultures.
But more interestingly, cinematic satire on a global scale like this can also help unite, rather than divide, people. It can inform as it inflames.
In his own bombastic way, "Borat" put Kazakhstan on the map (and gave the government a platform for introducing the "real" country to the world). Bruno, for all the controversy he has provoked, is out to make a point. Note the film's subtitle: "Delicious Journeys Through America for the Purpose of Making Heterosexual Males Visibly Uncomfortable in the Presence of a Gay Foreigner in a Mesh T-Shirt."
By shining a klieg light on intolerance, by shaking a leather-clad booty in the face of homophobia, or in the case of "Team America," by ridiculously mocking the destructive consequences of militaristic tedencies, these filmmakers are doing what artists are supposed to do: provoke, and make their audiences think. And if there's a chuckle or two in there, all the better.
This power to vex — which great art has wielded for centuries — is simply more immediate in the global economy. Provocative images and ideas can be sent from Almaty to Albuquerque with a single click, tweet or status update — by anyone with a computer, iPhone or BlackBerry. Meanwhile, an interconnected global media can, and does, instantly disseminate the outraged grievences of government power.
No, not everyone will enjoy the crudity of modern satire like this. Nor will everyone agree with it. But the world is a dark and sad enough place without adding official insult and angst to perceived injury.
So lighten up, Kiev. And pass the popcorn.
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