Baron Cohen, watch this one
THE AMERICAN FUTURE: A HISTORY BBC1, Friday October 31 STORYVILLE: WHEN BORAT CAME TO TOWN
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