Babel and Borat force us to look beyond our culture

Magazine Issue
March/April 2007

Almost everywhere we go, we’re reminded that we’re part of a global community—except when we go to the movies. Strange. After World War II, we were in the sway of Italian neorealism, the French New Wave, and Ealing comedies from Britain, and we saw life in other countries as increasingly familiar. In these Americocentric times, the only foreign films that draw a crowd here are the ones that ignore culture and reality and focus only on sexandviolence.

But there are filmmakers who try to expand our vision and force us to identify with the wider global community. The filmmaker most determined to show us what it feels like in other cultures (and even in other neighborhoods) is Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu who, with his screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, has created three of the richest, most fully alive films since the early days of Federico Fellini or the late works of Robert Altman. Amores Perros in 2000, 21 Grams in 2003, and now Babel, each intertwine several stories about interconnections between people in different circumstances and divergent places.

Babel, four overlapping stories of lives blown apart by a single gun, was filmed in Morocco, Mexico, Tokyo, and San Diego. It’s spoken in Berber, Spanish, English, Japanese, and sign language. It has movie stars (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, and Gael Garcia Bernal), along with the real faces of real people from all these faraway places.

Like Altman, Iñárritu can keep us aware of many different people and story lines on the screen at a time, never letting them coalesce into just a chorus or a mob. The Felliniesque Iñárritu plunges us into alien environments and makes us feel almost immediately what it would feel like to live in them day to day. He uses an ever-moving camera to draw us into these unfamiliar, often crowded, often lonely worlds. Fellini has brought us to live in the seaside resort town of Rimini (in Amarcord), the lavish world of Rome among movie stars (in La Dolce Vita), or his own life (in 8 12). But Fellini surrounded us with strange, bigger-than-life people, while Iñárritu finds magic in the faces of the ordinary.

In Babel, a Berber goatherd in the Moroccan desert gives his adolescent sons a rhino gun to kill jackals who prey on the goats. The gun came from a Japanese hunter, who’d given it to his Moroccan guide. The boys practice with the gun by shooting at a tourist bus and accidentally wound Cate Blanchett, who’s on a tense vacation with her husband (Brad Pitt) as they struggle with the recent death of their son. Pitt tries to summon help, while his fellow tourists are merely inconvenienced by the heat or the foreignness of the village where they end up. The American government promptly assumes it’s a terrorist attack and refuses to let a helicopter or an ambulance enter the dangerous area.

The illegal alien nanny (Adriana Barraza), with whom Pitt and Blanchett have left their surviving children back in San Diego, can’t go to Mexico to her son’s wedding. She commandeers her thuggish nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal) to drive her and the passportless young kids to the riotous wedding, where they radiate excitedly amidst the color and joy of the occasion. On reentry, Bernal runs from the border cops and dumps his aunt and her charges in the desert, where the U.S. border control is willing to kill them to keep her out.

Meanwhile, a deaf-mute Japanese teenager (Rinko Kikuchi), who’s mourning her mother, a recent suicide, and her distracted father, tries to seduce fatherly men as she contemplates suicide herself. She brings full circle this tale of a deadly gun, clumsy police, and the hazards of miscommunication. In each story, there’s a child or two in great danger and grown-ups with other priorities.

Brad Pitt has never seemed more desperately heroic. Cate Blanchett’s skin has never been more luminous. Kikuchi is impossible not to love. But Barraza steals the show, whether torn between her various commitments, returning to her native culture after 16 years, flirting and celebrating with an old flame, or stumbling helplessly around the desert, not caring which nationality comes to rescue her babies. There are few joys quite like watching a love-starved, wind-burned, middle-aged woman as she blossoms under the glow of an appreciative man, and few horrors quite like watching her crawl around the desert trying to escape the border patrol and get back home.

The faces are magical. Real people are in almost every frame, each with needs and wants and stories to tell. And we realize these faces are trying to make us feel not just their reactions of the moment, but their reactions to life as they live it. The camera moves wildly around each scene, trying to capture all the vitality gathered there, especially the children’s. The story bounces back and forth in time and space. It’s decidedly nonlinear, but never incoherent. Bypassing words and transmitting raw emotions, Iñárritu has found a way with which to connect us all. The deadly misunderstandings could all be cleared up if the people weren’t so alienatingly aware of their different languages, and just read one another’s faces and emotions instead.

If tears and fears aren’t enough to bring us together, we can try laughs. The crown prince of cross-cultural miscommunications is 35-year-old Sacha Baron Cohen, a 6’3″, 150-pound, hairy British comic. Baron Cohen is half Welsh/half Israeli, a Cambridge-educated Orthodox Jew—straight, shameless, and phenomenally vulgar. Da Ali G Show from London is a Candid Camera version of “It Pays to be Ignorant.” Baron Cohen ad libs three characters who interview serious celebrities, like Donald Trump, Sam Donaldson, Gore Vidal, Newt Gingrich, and Pat Buchanan. His guests aren’t prepared, merely told it’s a popular show on MTV that appeals mostly to kids. Baron Cohen’s three alter egos are Ali G, an illiterate, homophobic wannabe gangsta rapper; Bruno, an effeminate, gay, Nazi, fashion reporter from Austria; and Borat, an oversexed, anti-Semitic commentator from Kazakhstan who can’t seem to catch on to Western plumbing or propriety.

On the TV show, in whichever guise, he invariably creates chaos and confusion as he persistently mispronounces or misunderstands words in every language. For instance, he keeps confusing incense and incest. He routinely wanders off into politically incorrect territory, laughing uproariously at the unfamiliar notion that women’s brains were closer in size to men’s than to squirrels’. Borat says, “a woman’s place is in the cage.” Some of his guests (like Andy Rooney) take offense and stalk off. Others are merely bewildered and try gamely to help him out of his linguistic and etymological fog. And he ever so innocently frustrates guests out of their familiar script, provoking them to say inappropriate things.

Baron Cohen hit the big screen as a gay, French, race-car driver in Talladega Nights last year. He stole the movie, gracefully eliciting the homophobia, xenophobia, and ignorance of “motor sports” fans who relish waiting for wrecks as they watch people go too fast around a circle.

This year, he assaults the world with Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. He introduces us to his pigsty village, his mountainous wife with the meat cleaver, his sister (voted the fourth-best prostitute in Kazakhstan), and a local festival called the Running of the Jew. With squat, round TV producer Azamat Bagatov and a suitcase carrying a live chicken, he heads for America in a horse- drawn automobile.

It’s in the spirit of anarchist comedy, like the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, Steve Martin in The Jerk, or Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau—comics who inadvertently disrupt the polite society of an orderly world. Like the other anarchic comics, he makes a fool of himself, but he also creates a scenario in which the stuffy and the proper splatter a pie or two in their own faces. And it’s real.

In New York, he makes friends by kissing the men on a subway car, some of whom kiss back and some threaten his life. He learns to dress and talk like black America (whom he calls “Chocolate Faces”) from a gang of novice gangstas on an Atlanta street corner. He asks a gunshop owner what sort of gun would be best for killing Jews. The owner expounds on the relative advantages of the items in his arsenal. He goes to warmongering, holyroller religious services in Texas and leads a crowd in singing patriotic songs about killing off much of the rest of the world.

In Birmingham, he gets instruction in etiquette at a highly proper dinner party. He excuses himself to use the facilities and returns with a plastic bag full of his production. The unflappable hostess gives him instruction on the use of a flush toilet. But the dinner party is disrupted by the arrival of his prostitute, Luenell, a fleshy, flashy black hooker. The guests politely scatter.

Perhaps the most appalling moment is a nude wrestling scene with his eye-poppingly obese traveling buddy and bodyguard. It just goes on and on, out of the bedroom, onto the crowded elevator and through the lobby of the hotel, arousing homophobia where it hadn’t been felt before.

Borat wanders on, cheerfully inflicting indignities and espousing his appalling philosophies to polite strangers. Only Pamela Anderson runs from him, when he tries to marry her by throwing a sack over her head.

Borat is hilarious, even as we sympathize with the trusting slobs who, in their eagerness to be agreeable to this ridiculously inept stranger, inadvertently expose too much of their own pettiness and prejudices. Many, in this country and in the real Kazakhstan, have taken offense at Borat, oblivious to the fact that he isn’t Sacha Baron Cohen, but his self-cleansing alter ego. He’s ridiculing those who are ignorant enough to be anti-Semitic, anti-feminist, pro-war etc. This is far from a film of hate, but a sweet, therapeutic film that exposes, sympathetically but humiliatingly, the deadly prejudices we cradle just beneath our politeness to strangers, however strange.

As Iñárritu makes us aware of the lives of those in the background, and their connections to us and to one another, Baron Cohen makes us aware of the meanness and pettiness inside each of us. Both films show us the fissures in the global community. In these two invasive and therapeutic films, we may draw closer than ever to ourselves and others. Iñárritu introduces us to film as a universal language, while Borat shames us into cutting some slack for those who seem different from us. Through these films, we see and feel ourselves, even as we see the world up close.


Frank Pittman

Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.