The Work of Sasha Baron Cohen: A Blurred Line Between Mockumentary and Documentary

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Incredibly, the earliest notable uses of mockumentary conventions can be found only a few years after the term ‘documentary’ was coined. Going back as far as the 1930s, filmmakers were taking a medium largely used for the informative and ‘mocking’ it as a way of providing entertainment to a wide audience. Many would agree that the finest spoof-satire is that which fools a section of the audience into believing what they are seeing and hearing. This, of course, is virtually impossible in the modern era. Celebrity culture and the internet all but prohibits it. But in the earlier years of the 20th century, the moving image was still an exciting new development that found it easy to fool people.

Luis Bunuel’s ‘Land Without Bread’ was produced at a time when the word ‘documentary’ was barely a whisper, but Bunuel was bold enough to make a documentary about something entirely unfascinating (the poverty and culture of the Las Hurdes region of Spain). Coupled with a blasé yet somewhat sarcastically exaggerated narrative voice over and the use of Brahm’s 4th, Bunuel was able to entirely confuse audiences who could only have left screenings pondering the earnestness of the piece. So offended were the Spanish upon discovering the film’s parodical nature, they banned it for three years following the film’s release in 1933.

Almost 75 years later, documentary filmmakers were still causing a stir with the way they played on non-fictional situations. Sacha Baron Cohen in particular, has become a superstar as a result of his individual take on the documentary/mockumentary genre, for the paramount reason that the only entirely fictional element of his films is the central characters that he himself portrays. While his almost entirely improvised content is often funny in itself, the biggest laughs come in the form of the reactions of the ‘real’ people with which he interacts. The mockery of modern society is something that has been existent in comedy for decades, but Baron Cohen individually triumphs in the way that he toys with the comfort zones of others, often forcing members of the public into the most awkward conversational spots imaginable through a well-read use of sociocultural opinions and taboo violation.

The character of Borat and his skewed views of religion and politics was thrust into middle-America in the film, ‘Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan’ over the course of which he commits various solecisms; all caught on camera and all exposing of the stereotypical middle-American standpoint on God, homosexuality, and social status. So much so, that by the end of the the film it is difficult not to feel as if you have been somewhat educated to the ridiculousness of core groups of the American public, their beliefs, opinions, and the way they live their lives. It is this point in particular that forces one to consider Baron Cohen’s films as a credible form of documentary filmmaking as well as a box-office comedy smash.

Bill Nichols comments on documentary story telling in his book, ‘Introduction to Documentary’. He states that ‘to the extent a documentary tells a story, the story is a plausible representation of what happened rather than an imaginative interpretation of what happened’. While this statement separates documentary storytelling from other filmic forms, it isn’t able to define the sub-genre that Baron Cohen’s works belong to. ‘Borat’ cannot be lumped into the mockumentary genre based purely on the fact that the only thing fictional in the film is the central character; the definition of mockumentary being ‘fictitious events presented in the documentary format’.

A more definitive example of the true mockumentary format would be the works of Christopher Guest who over the years has created endless memorable, lifelike characters and realistically imagined worlds for them to reside in. As an esteemed artist himself, Guest has scripted, directed and starred in a variety of films that satire musicians (‘This Is Spinal Tap’, ‘A Mighty Wind’), dramatists (‘Waiting For Guffman’, ‘For Your Consideration’) and even proud dog owners (‘Best In Show’), all through what has become a trademark use of the mockumentary form. The difference between Guest’s mockumentaries and others though, is that he never intends to fool the audience into believing the film to be anything other than a form of entertainment that uses the documentary format as a comedic device.

Based on Guest’s firm grasp on the mockumentary and Nichols’ definition of what constitutes documentary, it almost humourously leads one to assume that the likes of ‘Borat’ (and more recently ‘Bruno’) lend themselves more to the documentary genre than any other. If we are to conclude this though, it cannot be without acknowledging the fact that Baron Cohen’s use of a deeply thought out but fictional central character is almost entirely individual to his films alone.
More so with Borat than Bruno or even Ali G, an entire biographical back story is given to these characters. Why this is so integral to Baron Cohen’s comedy is for two reasons. Firstly, by writing and then (in front of the camera) diligently living by the history of the character, it enables Baron Cohen (as an actor) to be able to form a continuous cohesion with regards to the humour of the character, committing the beliefs and practices of his comic creation to any social situation he might find himself in.

Secondly, when performing the character as a relative unknown outside of the UK, it made Baron Cohen dreadfully difficult to ‘catch out’. Though most of the people he found himself in contact with were more often than not less intelligent than he, on frequent occasions he was forced to defend himself with the sharpest of wit and most inescapable conviction. This mechanism is most evident in his portrayal of Ali G, a seemingly unintelligent character who would often interview politicians, clergy, and other intellectual figures. Baron Cohen, under the guise of ignorance, used his own intellectuality against his subjects who consistently took the ‘interviewer’ for granted. Just like the American public found themselves treating Borat like a toddler for the simple reason that he was ‘culturally different’, Baron Cohen allowed Ali G’s lack of intelligence to be taken advantage of until the point whereby he (Baron Cohen) could embarrass his subject into an awkward conversational corner from which there was no escape.

Should one not want to categorise Baron Cohen’s films as documentaries, it should be noted that these films draw parallels with modern reality programming; series such as ‘Jersey Shore’, ‘The Only Way Is Essex’ and ‘Made In Chelsea’. In programmes such as these, as impossible as it is to defend them, they are known for prefacing episodes with a caveat that reminds the viewer that although all the people in the show are ‘real’, some of what they do and say has been set up purely for entertainment. In a way, this is the artistic opposite of what Baron Cohen does, but in terms of realism probably the closest in comparison. The difference being that in films like ‘Borat’, all but one of the people on screen are ‘real’, and the scenes that are ‘set up purely for entertainment’ are only known to the actor portraying the fictional character while the rest of the cast (if you can call Baron Cohen’s unaware public that) are forced to partake and react in a way that is entirely unrehearsed and in no way predetermined.

The reason for the unprecedented success of films like Borat and Bruno may well be down to the same factor that makes these types of television series such massive hits. The viewing public enjoy watching a live reaction. Whereas reality programming has evolved from the likes of ‘Big Brother’ and now seems to predominantly focus on groups of rich youngsters and their playground romances, Baron Cohen has adopted and confirmed the notion that it is far more appealing to use this unrehearsed format as a means for comedic exploitation. Despite the fact that Borat is an entirely fictional character with an entirely fictional set of beliefs and opinions, if we are comparing this film to the likes of ‘Made In Chelsea’ et al, you would be hard pressed to argue that the former is in any way less real in its depictions of actual people. While the entire cast of a reality show are forced to enter certain predetermined situations and say certain things, Baron Cohen enters conversations as a lone wolf and uses his fictional portrayal to coax an honest reality out of his unsuspecting subjects.

In recent history, other satirists that have risen to popularity as a result of this type of reactional comedy include Chris Morris and Paul Kaye. Like Baron Cohen, they used the documentary format as a front to such an effective extent that over the course of the only season of ‘Brasseye’ (a nightly news parody) Morris was able to convincingly trick a range of respected celebrities into supporting varied causes such as a crackdown on a fictional drug from the Czech Republic and even a spoof charity organisation called ‘Nonce Sense’ that was ‘set up’ to protect children from paedophiles. Kaye similarly was famous for disguising himself as celebrity interviewer Dennis Pennis and crashing red carpets and press junkets at venues as reputable as the Cannes Film Festival where he managed to gain access to the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis.
It is probable that Morris especially was a hefty influence on Baron Cohen’s work. Morris’ willingness to destroy taboos at Channel 4 (where Ali G first appeared) tore the wall down in terms of what comedians could get away with presenting, and also highlighted a type of comedy that not only attracted viewers, but caused media controversy. Never one to shy away from controversy himself, Baron Cohen has used controversy to his ultimate advantage, using it to create a media buzz around his films before they are even released. Whereas controversy surrounded Morris following the airing of his content, Baron Cohen is known for using it as an advertising ploy. Most recently, he appeared on the Academy Awards red carpet as his newest character ‘Admiral General Aladeen’ where he proceeded to spill an urn onto television personality Ryan Seacrest which Aladeen said contained the ashes of form North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il.

While Sacha Baron Cohen is not the inventor of his specific comedic craft, he has certainly refined it in the last ten years. He would probably be the first to admit that he owes much to those that came before him, but through an informed and effective use of delivery tactics, improvisation and strategic situational positioning (Borat’s venture to middle-America being the best example of this), not to mention his brash, in-character advertising stunts, he has made a name for himself not only in the realms of modern comedy, but in the smallest sub-genre of amusingly exploitive documentary filmmaking.

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