Aus­tralia’s Bo­rat stirs up race re­la­tions

The Jewish Chronicle - - World News - BY DAN GOLD­BERG SYD­NEY

IMAG­INE, FOR a mo­ment, a Jewish co­me­dian arous­ing him­self on cam­era with the aid of Barack Obama’s book. Or be­ing cru­ci­fied on a gi­ant cross in the Philip­pines on Easter Sun­day. Or trans­form­ing him­self from a white Jew to a black brother in Chicago.

Sounds like scenes from Sacha Baron Co­hen’s lat­est ou­tra­geous satire, right? Wrong.

They’re from John Safran’s Race Re­la­tions, an eight-part se­ries that be­gan air­ing amid a pub­lic furore on Aus­tralian TV last week.

Mr Safran, 37, is a multi-award­win­ning co­me­dian from Mel­bourne. Since 1997, when he streaked through the streets of Jerusalem butt naked — ex­cept for an Aus­tralian rules foot­ball scarf — Mr Safran has done on the small screen what Mr Baron Co­hen has done on the big screen: pushed the prover­bial en­ve­lope with a string of au­da­cious, satir­i­cal stunts that have left view­ers sus­pended some­where be­tween belly-bust­ing hi­lar­ity and cringe-filled dis­be­lief.

Whereas Bo­rat and Bruno have cat­a­pulted Mr Baron Co­hen into global su­per­star­dom, Mr Safran re­mains a rel­a­tive un­known out­side of Aus­tralia.

This time, how­ever, his highly con­tentious black hu­mour (pun in­tended) will prob­a­bly el­e­vate his pro­file over­seas.

Even be­fore it aired, John Safran’s Race Re­la­tions sparked a split, with the Aus­tralian Fam­ily As­so­ci­a­tion la­belling the show “the low­est point in Aus­tralian tele­vi­sion his­tory” and an ed­i­to­rial in the Her­ald Sun in Mel­bourne de­scrib­ing it as “grossly in­sult­ing”.

In his de­fence, com­men­ta­tor Tracey Spicer urged read­ers of the Daily Tele­graph to lighten up.

“Com­edy is a ve­hi­cle to help us es­cape our ba­nal, day-to-day ex­is­tence. It’s sup­posed to be edgy, to chal­lenge our way of think­ing, to push our bound­aries.”

The Jews, or­di­nar­ily quick to pounce on con­tro­versy, have re­mained con­spic­u­ously si­lent thus far.

The show is os­ten­si­bly an at­tempt by Mr Safran, who grad­u­ated from the Or­tho­dox Yeshivah Col­lege in Mel- bourne, to in­ves­ti­gate “cross-cul­tural, in­ter-racial and in­ter­faith love” — a sub­ject Mr Safran says he has been grap­pling with since he had a non-Jewish girl­friend at uni­ver­sity and his par­ents pres­sured him to marry within the faith.

Sta­tis­ti­cally, the chances of mar­ry­ing some­one from your own faith are slim, he says.

“Be­ing Jewish, it’s such a po­tent is­sue in the com­mu­nity and I can en­gage with it.”

The be­spec­ta­cled, pasty-faced goon, who once joined the Ku Klux Klan as part of a TV stunt, even vis­its his de­ceased mother’s grave armed with a shovel and a kab­balah book as he at­tempts to un­ravel this age-old co­nun­drum: “When it comes to love, should you stick with your tribe or es­cape your tribe?” He trav­els to Togo, Ja­pan, Thai­land, the Nether­lands, the United States and the United King­dom in his search for an­swers. He also vis­its Is­rael and the Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries, where he has the gall to covertly put the se­men of his Pales­tinian sound­man into an Is­raeli sperm bank, while do­nat­ing his own se­men to a Pales­tinian fer­til­ity clinic in the West Bank. His aim? To cre­ate a “Je­les­tinian” and solve the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict.

But ar­guably his most in­cred­u­lous stunt was in the Philip­pines.

“Be­fore they cru­cify you they just flag­el­late you and whip you,” Mr Safran re­called. “Ap­par­ently I screamed too much… and they were threat­en­ing not to cru­cify me be­cause they said you can’t be on the cru­ci­fix when you are scream­ing. So the whole day was com­bi­na­tion of fear of be­ing cru­ci­fied and fear of not be­ing cru­ci­fied.

“The pain went away pretty quickly af­ter­wards; there wasn’t much bleed­ing. I wasn’t gush­ing with blood.”

True, he doesn’t visit Kaza­khstan or Aus­tria, but Mr Safran pro­duces enough hi­lar­i­ously non-kosher vi­gnettes to sug­gest he could be Bo­rat’s or Bruno’s suc­ces­sor.

His next project? A film.

John Safran in­ves­ti­gates “in­ter-racial and in­ter­faith love” in Africa

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