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I think 40 or 50 or so readers replied to my query about the right words to tell your team next Wednesday morning (post-election). I’m still going through them and will share some of it all next week. Thank you!
OK, today’s newsletter is about three people with a very unlikely thing in common:
Dennis Keen, an American living in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan.
Judith Dim Evans, an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor, who died earlier this year.
Jeansie Jones, a grandmother who attends Ebenezer Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.
All three are connected by the insanely raunchy Borat movie that came out this month, starring Sacha Baron Cohen. (Mom and Dad, I know you read this newsletter; just because I am writing about this movie does not mean I am recommending it to you!)
The title is technically Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. It’s a sequel to the 2006 movie, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006).
If you haven’t seen either movie, the titles alone give you an idea.
They’re mockumentaries about a fictional Kazakh journalist (Cohen as “Borat Sagdiyev”) who visits the U.S. and gets Americans to act in utterly embarrassing, cringe-inducing ways—and then, inexplicably, convinces them to sign releases allowing their scenes to be used.
So, first: Keen. Cohen used a fake version of Kazakhstan for the movies, “because it was a place that almost nobody in the U.S. knew anything about,” he told the New York Times.
But, in 2006, the real Kazakhstan worried that the portrayal of their country as an absurdly backward place would color people’s opinions. So, the government reacted aggressively: banning the film, taking out a four-page New York Times ad against it, threatening to sue.
This time, with the sequel (let’s just call it Borat 2), Kazakhstan decided it wasn’t worth another fight. They planned to ignore the movie, and “let it die its natural death,” according to a government official.
But then Keen, who first visited the country in high school, and met and married a Kazakh woman and is raising a family there, had another idea: capitalizing on the movie.
He teamed up with a local filmmaker, and pitched the government on a series of videos promoting Kazakh tourism that steal Borat’s catchphrase, turning it into the official slogan for Kazakhstan tourism.
The government bought into it. Here’s the result. Not too bad, right? You might even say, very nice!
So, Keen might be the hero as far as Kazakhstan itself goes.
But the movie gives us two other ordinary heroes, and the rest of this story is about what happened to them.
The first is Judith Dim Evans. I don’t even know how to summarize this, but there’s a scene in the movie in which Cohen, who is himself Jewish, goes to an American synagogue in character, while dressed in an absurdly offensive, antisemitic costume.
Evans, who isn’t in on the joke, nevertheless greets Cohen’s character warmly.
She patiently dispels his character’s pretend notion that the Holocaust never happened by sharing her testimony with him.
(Evans grew up in Germany and was 7 years old at the outbreak of World War II. Her mother died in Ravensbrück concentration camp; she hid in a Catholic orphanage. Eventually, she emigrated to Israel after the war—when she was about 13 or 14—and much later, came to the U.S.)
Evans treats Cohen-as-Borat with compassion. She even gives him a hug. She steals the scene, no doubt.
The other hero is Jeansie Jones, who responded to a casting call at her Oklahoma church for “grandmother types,” and who was quickly recruited for a scene in which she babysits Borat’s daughter Tutar (actress Maria Bakalova).
Jones had never heard of Cohen, knew nothing about Borat, and believed this was a documentary of some kind about “families from third world countries ‘who didn’t have any rights,’” she told Showbiz411, which tracked her down.
Like Cohen, she’s being heralded for rising to the occasion with almost zero context, and displaying compassion and concern. She said she’s spent the past year praying every day for Tutar Sagdiyev, only to find out the joke was on her.
As it happens, Evans died after filming; her family later sued (the case was dismissed), and Cohen revealed he broke character to tell her what the film was about. He said one of his goals was to use the movie to highlight how companies like Facebook and YouTube were allowing Holocaust conspiracy content to run rampant.
But Jones only found out about the farce when the rest of the world did.
She was paid a total of $3,600 for her appearance; apparently the 62-year-old grandmother of six has been unemployed after working 32 years at an insurance company. Her church set up a Gofundme for her that has raised about $127,000 for her so far.
Anyway, it seems like five years ago, but when Borat 2 came out last month, the hype was about a scene that Cohen filmed with an unsuspecting Rudy Giuliani, in which the president’s lawyer and former NYC mayor flirts and looks a bit compromised during what he thought was a TV interview with Tutar Sagdiyev.
Having seen the movie, it’s not a great look for Giuliani, but he doesn’t seem to do anything that crosses the line from “embarrassing” to “illegal.”
(It does make me wonder: if Guiliani was such an easy mark, and Cohen pranked him so simply with this over-the-top joke, what could a foreign intelligence agency do?)
But, a year from now, nobody is going to remember that scene, toward the end of a two-hour movie that is basically one long, bawdy joke stretched out the whole way.
What they’ll remember instead is about those two ordinary heroes: Evans and Jones, who aquitted themselves well, despite having no idea who was watching or what was going on.
Update: Literally just before I hit “send” on this, I came across this: Cohen donated $100,000 to Jones’s church, to be used toward food, shelter, and other things that struggling people in the community need.
“Maybe it's a little risqué, some of the things in the movie,” the pastor of Jones’s church said, “but he has a good heart.”
Only 4 days to go before Voting Day! Isn’t this kind of exciting? As of last night, more than 80 million ballots had already been returned. And I keep looking at Texas, the “most-voted-already state,” which is already at 95 percent of its total 2016 votes. Remember: DO NOT VOTE BY MAIL! It’s too late. Show up and vote in person if you are not among the 80 million.
7 other things worth your time
An ex-Taliban commander was arrested and charged in U.S. District Court for the November 2008 kidnapping of a New York Times journalist, his Afghan colleague, and their driver. (NYT)
OK, also the NYT, but they get credit for time-wasting: a feature where they show you the interior of someone’s fridge, and you have to guess if it’s a Biden supporter or a Trump supporter. I spent a minute on this, checked out 20 fridges, and got 70 percent right. (NYT)
Walmart stores across the country are removing guns and ammunition from their displays, out of concern about civil unrest. They’re not saying it’s explicitly election-related, but they’re doing it just days before the election. (WKRN)
A website counted up all the people that characters played by Samuel L. Jackson have killed on screen. It’s kind of mind-boggling: 1,734 fictional deaths over his acting career. (Task and Purpose)
She’d rather be president, I assume, but it turns out Hillary Clinton will be one of the New York State electors, assuming Joe Biden wins New York. (CNN)
Over 14 million Americans are expected to wind up relocating as a result of the shift to remote work in the wake of Covid, according to a new study by Upwork. (CNBC)
Amazon had yet another banner quarter: sales grew 37% to $96.1 billion during the three months ended September 30, and profit increased 197% to $6.3 billion compared with the same period last year. That doesn’t include Prime Day. Google, Facebook, Apple, and Twitter had good quarters, too. (WRAL Techwire)
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