On any given evening in Beirut for about the last month, crowds of often angry demonstrators – mostly Shia Muslim supporters of Hizballah — have gathered downtown in hopes of bring down the Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim-led government. At the same time, crowds – though less large and less angry – have also formed at the city’s movie theatres.
While it’s not surprising that Lebanese have sought refuge in cinema from the country’s sectarian tensions, it does seem strange that many of them are going to see a movie about, at least in part, sectarian tension in the United States. When it opened on Thanksgiving, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” was the third most watched movie in Lebanon, only trailing the usual blockbusters like Casino Royal.
The fact that a movie satirizing anti-Jewish stereotypes opened around the same time that Hizballah launched its campaign is surely mere coincidence, and not evidence of a very subtle Hollywood-Jewish plot to undermine the Islamists group’s anti-Israeli agenda. Nevertheless, it is something of a remarkable event that Borat played in Lebanon at all.
When Georges Hadadd, the head of Empire cinema, one of the largest distributors in the Middle East, decided to buy the rights to distribute Borat, half his staff thought he was crazy. “And not for reasons you might expect,” he said from his office above the company theaters in a Beirut shopping mall. “Not because of all the Jewish stuff.”
The risk was less political than it was commercial: Would anyone get the joke? Would Middle Easterners enjoy a movie that casts a British comedian as reporter from Central Asia on a road trip across America to marry Baywatch star Pamela Anderson? Or more to the point, would a region known for its piety tolerate, let alone patronize, a movie that shows the jiggling hindquarters of a prostitute in hot pants riding a mechanical bull, or, in another scene, two guys rolling around naked at a mortgage brokers’ conference? “I don’t want to call Borat an ‘art’ film,” said Haddad. “But it is a special film that requires special handling. Watching two men rolling around naked is not acceptable in our culture. Two women? Maybe.”
Haddad decided right away that Borat was not ready for prime time in most of the Middle East, in part because it portrays Kazakhstan as a country rife with incest, rape, and disco dancing. “Many of these countries, especially in the Gulf, have economic ties to Khazakstan, and the idea of turning a poor Muslim country into something ridiculous would be insulting. They are not going to understand that that’s being exaggerated to make people laugh.”
So Empire distributed the movie only Haddad’s native Lebanon, which is arguably the most sophisticated media market in the Middle East, and thus familiar with Borat’s creator, Sasha Baron Cohen, and his other farcical work such as the “Ali G. Show.”
But movies in Lebanon are no laughing matter. They are tightly monitored by a film censors board which is part of the General Security Directorate, the country’s most powerful intelligence institution. The board has traditionally banned or censored movies that contain anything that might be construed as Israeli propaganda, anything sexually explicit, and anything that might incite or insult one of Lebanon’s 17 different recognized religious sects.
All this would seem to doom Borat to oblivion as far as Lebanon is concerned. The sight of Borat in fishnet underwear is enough to make even the most hardened advocate of free media cringe. And the scenes of Borat speaking in tongues at a Pentecostal prayer meeting, a rodeo cowboy equating Arabs and Muslims with suicide bombers, and Borat’s attempt to buy a handgun suitable for Jew-killing, would seem enough to offend the sectarian sensibilities of any Lebanese. (There are still, rumor has it, a few Jews left in Lebanon, but they have kept a low profile since the Israeli invasion of 1982.)
But Borat, which closes here in a few weeks, has gone almost the length of its commercial run without public outcry, and as far as I could tell, not a single cut from the original. In a random sampling, Lebanese audiences laughed at the same excruciating moments in the film as did audiences in New York, though film critics at a special preview arranged for the Lebanese press were surprised to learn that there was anti-Semitism in America. “In the Middle East, all we know is that America and Israel are always together,” said one.
One reason for Borat’s smooth ride in Lebanon is that the country’s intelligence services aren’t what they used to be. The former head of General Security, Jamil Sayed (who was also the former head of the film board) is currently in prison under suspicion for involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the event that led the end of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon last spring. Since the Syrian withdrawal, several movies have been shown in Lebanon that would never have made it past the old regime, including the gay cowboy love saga Brokeback Mountain, and Munich the Stephen Spielberg’s drama about Israel’s campaign to avenge athletes slain by Palestinian terrorists at the 1976 Olympics. (On the other hand, Syriana, an espionage thriller set in the Middle East in which George Clooney has his head stuffed in a bag by Hizballah militants, didn’t make the cut.) More commonly, Lebanese are getting used to seeing their R-rated fare with the spicy parts intact.
It would be tempting to read the success of Borat and the newfound openness in Lebanese cinemas as signs of the health of the Cedar Revolution, the name given by the US State Department to the ant-Syrian, pro-democracy rallies last spring. But just as likely, Borat could mark a sad high water mark in a Weimar-like interregnum before the forces of reaction and rejectionism reassert themselves. While satirical movies like Borat and faux news programs like the “Daily Show” market themselves as the latest thing in political engagement in the United States, irony is not yet a potent political weapon in the Middle East. When a Lebanese television comedy show poked fun at Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah last year, his followers rioted, and cut off the road from Beirut airport. And with Hizballah firmly ensconced in central Beirut, no on dares laugh at the Sheik now.
Instead, Borat’s equal opportunity offensiveness is on par with the Baker report and so much else that the US exports to the Middle East. It represents freedom without responsibility. As one Lebanese film critic said after seeing the movie: “The real message of Borat is that America is ridiculous.” But people in the Middle East don’t need to go to the movies to learn that.