Banning Borat


Sacha Baron Cohen's new movie won't be shown in Kazakhstan theaters. He's in good company

Borat might be a fake journalist making a movie for the benefit of a fake nation, but because he calls the nation Kazakhstan, the actual country has taken the brunt of all the humor.

The movie Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, starring Sacha Baron Cohen, is a sensation in the U.S., opening as the top-grossing film this past weekend by pulling in more than $26 million. But it won't be readily available for viewing in Kazakhstan.

The country's largest movie chain, Otau Cinema, has banned the film. "We consider this movie offensive, a complete lie, and nonsense," said Ruslan Sultan, distribution manager for the chain, according to Reuters.

Borat isn't the first movie to have incensed a nation. Over the years, many films have inspired the wrath of not just nations, but cities, religious groups, and dictators. Malaysia, for instance, has some of the strictest rules for films: First names like "babe" are unacceptable, which is why the movie Babe about the lovable pig that herded sheep was banned. Saturday Night Fever is also banned, some say because it may be deemed to cause chaos in the community.

In the U.S., Chicago has a history of banning films during the time gangster Al Capone controlled the city in the 1920s and '30s. In 1926, the city banned The Crimson Kimono, which was based on a real-life Chicago murder case and political scandal. In 1928, the city banned The Racket, and in 1932 the movie Scarface, which was based on Capone, was also banned.

Censorship: When the State Steps In

Interestingly enough, controversial religious films sometimes inspire the least number of bans. For instance, The Last Temptation of Christ was seen as blasphemous because of a controversial scene in which Jesus imagines marrying Mary Magdalene, instead of dying on the cross. The movie was denounced by religious groups all over the world, and 10,000 people protested outside Universal Studios in Los Angeles when the movie opened. But there were few bans imposed, except for those in Chile and Queensland in Australia. In fact, there were more bans of The Da Vinci Code, the movie based on Dan Brown's best-selling novel that claims Jesus married Mary Magdalene and that their descendants survive today. Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Samoa, and the Solomon Islands all stopped the movie from being shown.

Historical movies and satires can encounter trouble from censors. Depictions of a 19th-century Thai king and a British governess in The King and I and Anna and the King have both been banned in Thailand. Thai officials say that the movies are an insult to the monarchy and distort Thai history. And it isn't surprising that Adolf Hitler's regime didn't like satirical depictions of the Nazis and banned Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator in the 1940s.

Opportunity for Kazakhstan?

Perhaps nothing beats how much Borat has managed to exasperate Kazakhstan's leaders. After all, Cohen's fans logged on to Wikipedia's Web entry for Kazakhstan and made the spoof journalist the president of that nation. The Kazakhstan government, unhappy about the depiction of its nation as boorish, has spent heavily on a media blitz—a two-day, four-page supplement in The New York Times and ads that ran on CNN listing facts and figures of the nation's economic growth, among other information. Kazakhstan's deputy foreign minister, Rakhat Aliyev, even extended an invitation to Cohen to find out what the country is really like.

But movie bans often have the opposite of their intended effect, sparking headlines and getting people more interested in the films. "Kazakhstan should embrace the movie and use it to promote tourism; after all, no one was talking about Kazakhstan last week—this week, everybody is," says Drew Neisser, president and CEO of brand consultants Renegade Marketing Group. "There's nothing like banning a movie to make every person want to see it."

Gogoi is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York.

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