Late last Thursday night, the clock ticking toward midnight under a full Canadian moon, a line made up mostly of young men snaked along Toronto’s Gerrard Street. The hipsters in their hoodies, the awkward computer nerds, the beefy frat-boys were there for the Toronto Film Festival’s “midnight madness” North American premiere of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Even those who recognized by the length of the line the futility of getting in stayed, hoping to glimpse the man in the eye of the Borat storm, the Cambridge-educated comedian and HBO star Sacha Baron Cohen.
And Mr. Baron Cohen didn’t disappoint. A little before midnight, his fiancé—the gorgeous and teensy Wedding Crashers actress Isla Fisher—smiled for photographers and slinked into the theater. Suddenly, Middle Eastern music blared as Mr. Baron Cohen—dressed as Borat—arrived on the red carpet, via an ox cart pulled by six women outfitted in dirty kerchiefs and long, sallow faces. A small pony sat in the cart just behind Mr. Baron Cohen. The crowd broke into a sloppy chant of “Borat! Borat!”
(Borat later told The Observer: “These scenes were remind me of the time American football star O.J. Simpsons visit Almaty in 1998 to be judge in Miss Kazakhstan contest. I was slight nervous that the cheerings would cause spook the womens pulling my cart and make cause them to bolt.”)
Borat, for those who have not seen Mr. Baron Cohen’s Da Ali G show on HBO, is “Kazakhstan’s sixth most famous man.” At his film premiere, he was wearing his trademark ill-fitting gray suit, gangly arms braced for a big double thumbs-up, his manic grin flashing wide beneath a full mustache that Mr. Baron Cohen has said takes a month and a half to grow. The crowd screamed and cheered. “The festival people say this is the movie that’s causing all the frenzy,” said a nearby I’m-pretending-to-be-so-bored-it-must-mean-I’m-press voice.
The Toronto International Film Festival sprawls across downtown Toronto, putting stressed-out New York publicists, shellacked L.A. industry types, regional journalists and polite-to-the-point-of-ridiculous Canadians together onto the spookily clean streets. The press and industry screenings are filled with earnest movie lovers and self-important puffsters, who can be heard explaining before the credits roll why a film is simply god-awful. Go to the new Pedro Almodóvar movie, Volver, and prepare to hear some blowhard wax poetic on historic Spanish cinema. Ditto on the wave of Latino filmmakers—and don’t even think about bringing up the Hong Kong explosion.
So just to see a bunch of screaming fans who wouldn’t recognize—or care about—the influence of Truffaut if it fell from a burning, metaphor-laden sky is a happy novelty for a film festival. And all for a movie that will be equally dismissed as a cerebral retread of Jackass territory and celebrated as a vehicle for the first truly dangerous comedy since Andy Kaufman. Like South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Mr. Baron Cohen creates comedy that refuses to be co-opted by the political right, left or middle.
The character of Borat—a second-stringer to Ali G, Mr. Baron Cohen’s ethnically confused, suburban hip-hop character—is a weirdly likable one. It’s hard for even the people he sends up to resist his wide-eyed astonishment, his ebullient happiness and the flash of his uncomprehending smile. Borat is joyfully anti-Semitic, misogynistic, homophobic and racist—and brings out those same traits in many of his unwitting interview subjects, a fact that lends his comic bits a distinct edge of queasy darkness. When Borat, onstage strumming a guitar while wearing a cowboy getup, incites the crowd at a country-and-western bar to join him in a rousing sing-along chorus of “Throw the Jew down the well / So my country can be free / You must grab him by his horns / Then we have a big party!”—the viewer is always aware that behind the Borat persona, Mr. Baron Cohen is himself a Jewish man who happens to be standing in a crowd of Americans who don’t blink at singing a blatantly anti-Semitic song in the year 2006.
In both his HBO show and the film, Mr. Baron Cohen shows a remarkable talent for being able to take a bit to just over the line and then running far, far past it. Mr. Baron Cohen himself has become an elusive character, mostly choosing to give interviews only in character, and even then sparingly.
Asked by The Observer how he was treated in Toronto, Borat replied, “I was treat very luxury at this festivals, although I was humiliate that my hotel would not provide my 11-year-old son Bilak with key to room of Penelopes Cruzs. I had promise him that he could do a sexytime time with her, and he had spend three month traveling on foot from Kazakhstan with his wife and two childrens.”
Back inside the theater, the rock-concert atmosphere continued. Audience members waved mini Kazakhstan flags and craned their necks to see who was in the reserved seating. A chair marked “Samuel L. Jackson” was occupied by an unrecognizable blonde. The audience gave Borat a standing ovation as he took the stage and gave spazzy high-fives all around. He kissed both a Canadian and Kazakhstan flag and introduced his film. The movie rolled, and the audience rolled with it, roaring with laughter. A happy sort of hysteria settled in. But then came the first sputtering clank, then a shuddering groan … followed by a full film stoppage. When the lights came on, the audience was confused: Was this part of the plan?
Out from a back row Borat popped up, made a joke about the authorities using their “strongest glue” to put the film back together, and then disappeared. Time passed. Various Canadian film-festival reps made their way timidly to the stage to plead for patience. A rumor floated down from the balcony: Michael Moore, who had been seen on the red carpet in a blue sweatshirt and shorts, was up in the projectionist’s booth trying to fix the problem.
By 1 a.m., the crowd was beginning to move past restless and into pissed-off. Mr. Moore, who reportedly had gotten reacquainted with Mr. Baron Cohen in the lobby of the hotel that afternoon, took the stage with Borat director Larry Charles, who was himself a sight in his long hair, long graying beard, sunglasses and dark clothing. Mr. Moore informed the crowd that he had once worked a projection booth and that they were trying to find an extra part. The men said they would answer questions on any subject. In no particular order, they were asked everything from what was scripted in the film (answer: nothing) and if any chickens were harmed (no), to if they had seen Snakes on a Plane (Mr. Moore yes, Mr. Charles no). “I never go to bed. You can’t sleep these days if you are an American,” said Mr. Moore, in answer to a question about his being at a midnight screening. Had they seen the Suri Cruise pictures in Vanity Fair?
“Don’t you think it’s time to quit picking on Tom Cruise?” asked Mr. Moore. “I mean, come on, seriously—his crime is that he jumped on Oprah’s couch.”
“Michael has an announcement,” broke in Mr. Charles. “He’s converted to Scientology.”
“I’ll be making out with John Travolta in the lobby,” said Mr. Moore.
Finally Mr. Baron Cohen came back on stage, as Borat, pointing Mr. Moore out as “this fat man.” He apologized on behalf of Kazakhstan and did some Q&A that got the audience rollicking. (“The thing I found very surprising in Americas is that it’s now illegal to shoot at red Indians. I would like to apologize to the staff of the Poquawatomack casino …. ”) At 1:40 a.m., the final announcement went around that the problem could not be fixed, and that everyone could see the film the following night at midnight at a different theater. As boos and hissing rose, Mr. Baron Cohen looked genuinely distressed and promised the audience that he would “crush” authorities.
(“I cannot explain what happen with this projection apparatus,” Borat later told The Observer. “It was brand-new machine brought over special from Kazakhstan for this event. We do not know who fault it was—the blacksmith who build this projectors blame the candlemaker for use poor-quality wax in the lantern, and the candlemaker blame the boy who was pedaling it for go too fast and blow out the flame. They will all be execute and then tried in a court of law for this crime.”)
At the press screening with a new print the following afternoon, the mood was subdued. Many in attendance hadn’t heard about the premiere’s debacle.
“Is that a Jewish newspaper?” asked a man sitting next to a newspaper reporter. “I heard the film is unabashedly anti-Semitic.”
While the film certainly has its (hilarious) moments—the much-discussed “running of the Jew” in Borat’s native village, the sexual jokes (“Her vagina hangs like a sleeve of a wizard”)—it’s hard to believe that the intent is insult. Mr. Baron Cohen, 34, was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household, to an Israeli-born mother and a Welsh father. He reportedly still keeps kosher, and Ms. Fisher has been quoted in the British press saying that she’ll be converting before their marriage. Mr. Baron Cohen was educated at Cambridge, where he did time with the famed Footlight acting troupe while working on a thesis about relations between Jews and blacks during the American civil-rights movement, including an interview with Robert Moses. “I spent quite a lot of time, actually, at the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta, studying and actually living in downtown Atlanta, which was an interesting experience,” Mr. Baron Cohen told Vanity Fair’s Jim Windolf in one of his few-and-far-between interviews as himself.
At the rescheduled midnight screening (which lured in Dustin Hoffman), the rain wasn’t dampening the 1,500-plus crowd’s enthusiasm. “I wouldn’t miss it,” said Anthony Chen, 23, who had kept his ticket stub from the night before.
“Last night was a bit embarrassing for Toronto,” said Jonathan Schwartz, 23.
Mr. Baron Cohen wasn’t to be found at this screening—rumor had it that he and his entourage had been out till all hours.
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