British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Ali G, Borat, and Brüno), is back – just in time – with his new show: Who is America? Filmed secretly over the past year, this satirical comedy series “explores the diverse individuals… across the political and cultural spectrum, who populate the United States”.
Already Baron Cohen has created controversy by releasing a clip showing former US vice president Dick Cheney signing a waterboarding “kit”. He has also infuriated former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin after she discovered she’d been duped by the comedian who interviewed her posing as a disabled US veteran.
If this new project is anything like the work Baron Cohen did on Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006), this could be just show the world needs right now.
In the film, Baron Cohen plays Borat Sagdiyev, a Kazakh reporter making a documentary about life in the US. Although his character is fictitious, many of the interactions with him are not. Borat’s naivete, misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia reflect the same views in some of his documentary subjects.
At a Virginia rodeo, for example, manager Bobby Rowe responds to Borat’s passing comment that his country hangs homosexuals, with: “That’s what we’re trying to do here”, before casually continuing with his recommendation that Borat shave his moustache so that he look “less Muslim”.
The Borat portrait of America may have generated controversy at the time, but from today’s perspective, the examples from the film are prescient. A request for a gun to shoot Jews is met with nonchalance. In his encounter with University of South Carolina frat boys, Borat’s casual misogyny and racism are met with enthusiasm as the students bemoan the end of slavery and complain that minorities now have all the rights.
But the encounter between a fictional character and the real world did more than reveal the ugly underbelly (and the occasional kind character) of Americans. It encouraged a critical engagement with documentary media – and that is more important than ever.
Each encounter between Borat and his subjects invokes the documentary tradition, which allows an investigator with a camera to produce a truth through their own perspective. At the same time, each encounter draws attention to those limits of the tradition by reminding viewers that an interview’s structure and content are often determined by the person holding the camera. And it encourages the viewer to question just what, exactly, in those sequences was real, and what was confected.
If Baron Cohen’s recent Twitter promotions are any indication, Who is America? could demand similar, necessary scrutiny on the part of the viewer.
On July 4, Baron Cohen posted a video to his Twitter account, described as: “A message from your President @realDonaldTrump on Independence Day”. Beginning with a screenshot of Trump’s Fourth of July wishes and a written declaration that “our country is doing GREAT”, the video appears to be a denunciation of Baron Cohen by Trump (who had previously been embarrassed by him in an interview as Ali G), including a demand that the “third-rate character Sacha Baron Cohen” should “go to school and learn about being funny”. The clip closes on a written announcement that “Sacha graduates” followed by the Trump University logo.
On one level, it is opportunistic promotion by Baron Cohen, using a 2012 video from Trump’s “From the Desk of Donald Trump” vlog to promote his new show. On another, it demands questions of provenance: where did this footage come from? And when? There is no indication of its origins on screen.
While it offers Trump’s own confession of violent dislike for Baron Cohen, this was not a recent tweet intended as a holiday announcement. And what do we make of the statement that “Sacha graduates” from Trump University, an unaccredited, defunct organisation subject to class action lawsuits for fraud and negligent misrepresentation?
Will Trump issue his usual verdict for things he doesn’t like – that this is simply “fake news”? There are two meanings for this phrase which is suddenly in such regular use. There are those who see it as inaccurate reporting, inflammatory clickbait and misinformation gone viral – and warn against extreme credulity whereby too many people are willing to believe something that appeals to their ideals and prejudices. Then there is the sense of outright dismissal, that leads to a failure to engage with either form or content.
Who is America? has the potential to intervene and undo this damage. If it continues the intriguing layering of fiction and non-fiction that Baron Cohen started with Ali G, Borat and Brüno, there is an opportunity to return viewers to the necessary critical perspective required for documentary and non-fiction media.
The programme is likely to encourage a host of responses from furious disavowal to delight in the “gotcha” element associated with Baron Cohen. But its blurring of truth and fiction could also make decisions to accept or reject what is being shown more difficult – Baron Cohen’s sly comedy offers viewing that engenders trust and doubt simultaneously. Who is America? could encourage audiences to investigate how this was produced, and what actually happened. It could mean searching for clues of a hoax and focusing on the facts that linger. This is the non-fiction media literacy we all need in the era of Trump.
Leshu Torchin, Senior Lecturer in Film Studies, University of St Andrews.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.