The Dictator and The Zionist - The Trouble with Sacha Baron Cohen.
This morning, Sacha Baron Cohen is on my mind. Not a pleasant image to have to confront, but he’s been all over the place with the press for his new movie, The Dictator, which premiered in London earlier this week. He plays a composite character based on Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi - but I also see a lot of Iran’s Ahmedinijad in there. I don’t even really know what the plot of the movie is, but SBC’s movies have never really been big on plot.
I read this blog on CNN by Dean Obeidallah which calls out Cohen on the racism he displays in “browning up” to play an Arab man. Obeidallah’s argument is that Arabs and Indians themselves should be in movies that make fun of them. Fair enough. He doesn’t go far enough, in my opinion, to address all the stereotypes of Arabs that come out to play in the movie, but that’s because he hadn’t seen the movie when he wrote the piece. I wonder if he will.
What bothers me is that nobody’s addressing something more complex and, in my mind, more dangerous. So I’m going to attempt to do it. I know what I’m going to say is controversial, but I believe in speaking my mind when I see something that bothers me.
You see, SBC is a Zionist, a very publicly declared one. Which is not a problem for me personally, really. He’s got the right to hold his political views even if they are very bigoted ones that have been the root of most of the strife in the Middle East since 1948. But he’s got a very deliberate agenda which he expresses not-so-subtly in all his movies, and it’s not being said by commentators because of the fear that they will be called anti-Semitic.
Zionism is the belief in a Jewish nation, and the accompanying fierce loyalty to that nation, no matter what it does in the name of protecting itself and perpetuating its survival. It’s Zionism, not Judaism, that has seen the worst atrocities committed against the people of Palestine. Now, SBC doesn’t go around spouting things about the greatness of Israel in his movies. But if you look carefully, each one of his productions - from Ali G to Borat to Bruno to now, The Dictator, advances a certain element of Zionist propaganda against Muslims. Which is that Muslims are laughable, unintelligent, idiotic people with no intellect at best, and terrorists at worst. And Cohen uses buffoonery to do this.
How? By taking the stereotypes, derived both from Orientalism and from anti-Islamic Zionism, and playing them out to such ridiculous extremes, that his audiences laugh. And in laughing, they feel entertained. And in being entertained, they swallow the stereotypes and the racism whole, without pausing to critically analyze what they’ve been presented with. You could call this SBC’s particular genius. Yes, it’s pretty clever. But it’s also dangerous.
With Ali G, Cohen presented a fairly innocuous character: a rudeboy of uncertain ethnicity* (but everyone assumed he was Asian, or at least an Asian persona taken on by a white man for even more irony and laughs) who was stupid, racist, anti-Semitic, and sexist. A genius comedic character who made people laugh and believe that Asians, especially Muslim ones, of a certain age, class, and educational level, are all like this.
With Borat, I almost don’t have to say anything. We all know the buffoon he played who was from Kazakhstan who went to the United States and displayed all sorts of inappropriate behavior. He spouted off truisms about life in Kazakhstan, which included some pretty nasty jibes at village life - “My sister is best prostitute in village” - implying that again, Kazakhs - who happen to be Muslim - are backwards, idiotic yokels who engage in incest and bestiality. Of course it’s ridiculous, you say, we know it’s not true. Yes, but when you pick a country that most people know virtually nothing about and you assign values and mores to it, you know that because of the vacuum of knowledge, people will subconsciously adopt those values, or at least associate them with the country in the absence of better knowledge. Again, very, very clever.
In Bruno, the story of a gay Austrian fashionista, there’s no overt racism against Arabs or Muslims for a while. But then Cohen pulls the stunt of interviewing a Palestinian man who he claims is a dangerous Muslim terrorist. The man, in real life, is a Palestinian Christian who has nothing to do with terrorism. Cohen made him sign a release form before appearing in the movie, and didn’t tell him that he was going to brand him as a terrorist. On screen, this is a big joke, but in real-life Palestine, this can result in your death at the hands of Israeli security forces.
Most people think of Sacha Baron Cohen as a comedic genius, as I said before, as a trickster, someone who stands conventions on their heads to get laughs. I see him as someone else: a very intelligent man with a political stance and a stage on which to make that stance known. That he’s being subversively funny about it and using comedy rather than straight political discourse to do so is a sign of his brilliance, but also of his duplicity. He is advancing the worst of Zionist propaganda against Muslims with his movies, and the worst part is, you’re paying $15 each time to see him do it.
*I’ve had several people tell me Ali G was a parody of whites who want to be gangsta, Jamaican, or black. This wasn’t revealed until later in the series, though - and to be honest, when I saw him, the first thing that popped into my mind was that he was a parody of an Asian. Perhaps it was the name “Ali” (which was later revealed to be short for Alistair), a Muslim name that is very common amongst British Pakistanis, not so common amongst Afro-Carribbeans. Anyway, even if it was a white wannabe, critics rounded on him for making it “safe” to laugh at that culture from an imagined politically correct stance because it was buffoonery. I stick to my original claim that he was lampooning Asians (in addition to blacks, a more definite identity that I think evolved and became clearer as the series went on), and that his Zionist, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab stance has become more bold over time and become more and more overt in his films. And one thing people don’t know is that when he talks in the supposed language of each character, he’s actually making in-jokes in Hebrew.
word, SBC & his brand of humor bug me generally but this in particular is why i was so frickin uncomfortable when my dad (Zionist As Heck™) got disappointed when i didn’t want to see it with him
I was waiting for Tumblr to get its panties in a twist about The Dictator. I must say, I’m impressed. It took it two days for the hate to show up on my dash. I thought it would have been sooner.
I’m also surprised that the first I’ve seen of The Dictator and Sacha Baron Cohen anger was about his “Muslim portrayal” and not the rape and suicide jokes. I’m probably going to come off as sounding pretentious, but when I was in film school (majoring in film production and screenwriting), we had a whole quarter on Cohen and analyzing his films. A good story, if that is written or visual, is something that sends a message to its audience. It is something that tackles a pressing issue in the world that needs to be fixed. It is something that brings up a problem and presents it to the viewers.
I’m sorry, but I think you’re* missing the big picture here with SBC’s films. It is NOT an attack on Muslims. It has been a while since I’ve watched Ali G, Borat, and Bruno, but I don’t recall Islam being brought up much in those productions (if at all?). I remember with Borat, the character said something along the lines of “I follow the bird” for his religion.
If you want to get offended about something, you should get offended about the right thing (I wonder how many people just got offended at me saying that). Yes, you are free to get offended about whatever you want in life, but when you’re trying to make something up that isn’t there in a particular instance to be offended about, that seems kind of asinine.
Again, going back to film school. I had professors that actually work in the industries. Professors that write TV and film for a living that presented this study with their students….and if you actually watch Sacha Baron Cohen’s movies as a whole, you’ll see that he’s not giving a message the Muslims are stupid. His works actually “attack” America and Americans (or corrupt government in The Ali G Movie). He mocked Christianity in Borat, if you want to say he’s portraying a religion in a bad light….but you know what? He mocked A LOT of things. It goes back to the golden rule that is now becoming so blasphemous in the world: Either you can make fun of everything, or you can’t make fun of anything at all.
Satire is a beautiful method of humor and writing, because satire takes (most of the time) a serious issue that people are ignorant about, and presents it in a humors light so that it becomes gentle for the person to absorb and then later think about…well, if that person has a bit of intellect.
In Cohen’s films, he exposes the ignorance and bigotry of the majority of the American people. Yes, his characters contain some stereotypical traits, but that’s what they are: Stereotypes. They HAVE to be stereotyped for the reason that he places them (the character) in the world of the
American people. His writing then displays the truth on how American’s think of and perceive said person (The ‘unknown’ foreigner, the gay, the Arab), and then how they get treated by people because they believe things like “All Arabs are going to blow up your city”. There’s a really good scene in The Dictator, where Aladeen and his scientist are talking about a car in front of “typical American’s” …and the citizens and the police arrest them based on the assumption they were talking about a terrorist attack.
You* feel like SBC is singling out Arabs and Muslims (which is silly), because his representation about them is so strong (yet it’s strong about other people and things as well)…because what is a pressing issue in these past few years? The way the world, mostly Americans, feel threatened by ANYONE of Middle Eastern decent. The general people has a stereotype about them, and SBC is mocking the stereotype with his stereotypical displays of them…however, that’s just on the surface. If you strip down the layers to what you are actually watching, and what he is trying to say, is that these people (the forigner, the gay, the Arab) are STILL people who face undeserved intolerance just for being them.
In The Dictator, it is constantly talked about how “you have to look and appear American, so that they don’t think you’re a terrorist”. There is also a voice of reason character in the film, Zoey, who has SEVERAL monologues about how it’s not right to stereotype and treat people difference based on where they come from or how they look.
You may argue that it’s STILL not right for Cohen to act “buffoonish” with his characters, because it’s offensive to Islam (or whatever else you want to feel offended about), but it goes back around to what I said before about WHY a writer needs to use comedy and simple jokes if they want to get a serious issue across.
You know why Sacha Baron Cohen is praised for being a comedic genius? Because that’s exactly what he does; he takes on SEVERAL serious issues in one film. He is also praised for having good writing and acting, because every single one of his characters in his films go through “the fall”.
The fall means that you have a character who is arrogant and/or strong…then an event happens to /change them/. For a while the character is at a low, feels helpless, wrong, and suicidal even. They then realize that instead of being brought down, they can arise a new and better person. They learn a lesson.
This is character development. If Cohen was trying to say that all Arabs/Gays/whatever were nothing more than stupid buffoons to be laughed at, then he would still have them just a “stupid” as they were in the beginning of the film. You can argue that Aladeen didn’t have a change, because by the end of the film he was talking about Zoey getting an abortion if she was pregnant with a boy, but in the beginning of the film, the character of Aladeen wouldn’t even THINK of being with a person like Zoey at all, let alone allow someone else to stand by his side like that in his country.
The main point of The Dictator was not to make fun of Arabs and Muslims, it was to once again give a “fuck you” to corrupt government, mainly the American government.
Using an Arab person (Aladeen) as the main character as the portrayal of evil and stupid, is because that’s what -most- American’s believe to be true about Arab people and their politics….or anything other than democracy. And, in recent years, the Middle Eastern countries have been the spot light for having “evil and stupid” leaders and government in the eyes of America.
You cannot say that it is not true that American’s write and speak constantly about how those countries /need/ democracy. The US Government seems to have a crusade to get democracy into every country. They preach about how much better democracy is, and how it’s not fair to the people of said country to be ruled under dictatorship or communism, because the people get treated poorly.
America glorifies itself in it’s democracy, and the government has pride in how great it is for the citizens.
When you watch The Dictator though, Aladeen talks about how great dictatorship is, because it allows “your rich to become richer, it allows your government to come in to control press and freedom of speech, and rig elections.” There was much more he said, but it was a spot on talk about how….despite the American government having democracy, they are acting like dictators themselves. Can you argue that it’s not true? It’s everything OWS was standing against.
One of the main, yet appearing simple, growths in the film, was the missile.
In the beginning, Aladeen wanted a pointed missile. He was enraged when the scientist gave him a round missile…because he was convinced that it HAD to be a pointed missile in order for it to do its job. The scientist argued that it could work the same with being round as well, but Aladeen wouldn’t listen.
By the end of the movie, the scientist is excited because he finally made him a pointed missile, but then Aladeen didn’t care at all. He said something along the lines of “It doesn’t matter how it looks, it can still do what you want it to.” Which WHOA! HOLD THE FUCK UP! It’s such a simple line, and it appears to be nothing more than a little joke…but it’s actually so much more than that…it’s reinforcing the lesson of the film, that “even though it is labeled democracy, you can still be acting like a dictatorship”.
So before getting offended at joking about things, if that is rape, abortion, suicide, religion, or ethnicity, think about WHY it is being joked about, and WHY it is presented in such a manner. It may make YOU offended and angry if YOU have the belief that “not everything is okay to joke about”, but as YOU wrote*…it makes people laugh, and to make people laugh is to make people pay attention to you if you have something important to say.
*You’re and you is referring to people in general who are having issues with being offended. I’m not trying to single out one person or the tumblr op.