Baron Co­hen, watch this one


The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment&analysis -

BBC4, Tues­day Oc­to­ber 28

CON­SID­ER­ING THAT the United States is a na­tion founded on im­mi­gra­tion, it does not seem to take very kindly to im­mi­grants — or at least to some them.

It is not of­ten that one is able to say that the Jews had it easy, but in com­par­i­son with at least two eth­nic groups who set­tled in the USA, but they prob­a­bly did.

Take the Mex­i­cans who still pour over the bor­der into Texas in great num­bers, much to the con­ster­na­tion of many white lo­cals who rail against the pol­lut­ing of their coun­try with il­le­gal im­mi­grants, who, ac­cord­ing to one pro­tester, were “bring­ing in nu­mer­ous dis­eases, rap­ing and steal­ing and ru­in­ing our coun­try”.

The beauty of Si­mon Schama’s ex­am­i­na­tion of Amer­ica’s present within the con­text of its past, is the sense of per­spec­tive he brings to the coun­try’s prob­lems, and here was a case in point. Many Tex­ans do not ac­tu­ally re­alise that they are the in­ter­lop­ers in Texas. Be­fore 1845, Texas was part of Mex­ico, and the white, English-speak­ing set­tlers a mi­nor­ity in a Span­ish speak­ing coun­try.

Ul­ti­mately the state was an­nexed fol­low­ing the Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can War and the Span­ish-speak­ing in­hab­i­tants found them­selves un­wit­tingly trans­planted into a white man’s coun­try. For 150 years they have been a hated un­der­class, Amer­i­cans who were not con­sid­ered Amer­i­cans.

How­ever, com­pared to the Chi­nese, they had it easy. Chi­nese labour­ers, ac­cord­ing to Schama, per­haps did more than any other eth­nic group to make Amer­ica — it was they who, in the direst of cir­cum­stances, and at the cost of many of their lives, man­aged to dy­na­mite a route through the moun­tains for the rail­road which ul­ti­mately united the con­ti­nent.

White Amer­ica showed its grat­i­tude by ridi­cul­ing, dis­crim­i­nat­ing against and in at least one in­stance in the town of Truc­kee, Cal­i­for­nia, eth­ni­cally cleans­ing their Chi­nese pop­u­la­tion fol­low­ing a cam­paign by an un­scrupu­lous news­pa­per pro­pri­etor.

In the USA, it was the Chi­nese who suf­fered the pogroms and not the Jews — a point made elo­quently by Schama, him­self a Jewish im­mi­grant to Amer­ica, who de­scribed their story as “a tragedy”.

This has been an in­trigu­ing se­ries. But de­spite the qual­ity of Schama’s in­sight­ful anal­y­sis, there is the tele­vi­sual prob­lem of how to il­lus­trate events which hap­pened be­fore the in­ven­tion of mov­ing film. This means a lot of shots of Schama him­self strid­ing pur­pose­fully into view and star­ing thought­fully into the mid­dle dis­tance as his dis­em­bod­ied voice tells the story. Still, the scenery is won­der­ful and the com­men­tary pow­er­ful, even if we have got to know the con­tours of Schama’s face slightly too well.

Mean­while, on BBC4, there was con­tro­versy aris­ing from the ex­ploits of an­other im­mi­grant to the US — this one a fic­tional Kaza­khstani called Bo­rat (aka Sacha Baron Co­hen).

The con­tro­versy em­anated from the lo­ca­tion cho­sen to film the open­ing se­quence in the Bo­rat movie — sup­pos­edly in his home vil­lage in Kaza­khstan, which he de­picted as a filthy, back­ward hamlet pop­u­lated by abor­tion­ists and pros­ti­tutes.

The vil­lage where they filmed was not ac­tu­ally in Kaza­khstan but rather in a re­mote re­gion of Ro­ma­nia. It emerged that the in­hab­i­tants, none of them abor­tion­ists or pros­ti­tutes, felt hu­mil­i­ated by their por­trayal and be­trayed by the film com­pany which told them they were mak­ing a doc­u­men­tary, rather than a movie com­edy.

This film, about the com­mu­nity’s ef­forts to seek re­course from 20th Cen­tury Fox for their hu­mil­i­a­tion, was one to make Baron Co­hen feel un­easy about the shame­less ex­ploita­tion of th­ese poor peo­ple, in whose vil­lage there is no run­ning wa­ter, no sense of pur­pose, just en­nui and poverty in equal mea­sure.

Sadly, the lawyers sensed they could also make a killing from the vil­lagers’ suf­fer­ing and by at­tempt­ing to bring an (ul­ti­mately un­suc­cess­ful) com­plaint against 20th Cen­tury Fox they man­aged only to com­pound the pain.

Res­i­dents of the vil­lage where Bo­rat was shot are an­gry over their por­trayal

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