True confession: The first time I heard Sacha Baron Cohen speak beyond the theatrical context of his “moviefilm” life, I was less than impressed. It was 14 years ago, before an SRO and riled-up Lobero Theater crowd as part of SBIFF, buzzing on the heels of his first, career-launching Borat film, and Cohen seemed something of a sneering, pugnacious punk, gracious to neither the hosting festival and the host of the evening, Leonard Maltin. But the fawning crowd ate up his “up against the Man” act, which felt like so much munching on hands that fed him.
Of course, the underlying point was that Cohen was, in fact, at least half in character, as he has been for most of his career. Subsequent interview settings — in an in-depth conversation with Terry Gross, for instance, and elsewhere — and deeper readings of his oeuvre reveal a truer, more socially conscious and committed activist ethos at work behind the prankster surface. As he mentioned, at one point on Wednesday — during what will probably be the most remarkable tribute session of the current festival’s tribute roster, for the “Outstanding Performer of the Year” Award on Wednesday night at SBIFF 2021 — “This is my least popular character, Sacha Baron Cohen.” He was being self-effacing about his role as interviewee, but he’s got that character nailed, as well — the articulate student of history and champion of human compassion.
Setting an aptly loopy atmosphere for the event, it opened with a two-shot of both event host Scott Feinberg and SBIFF domo Roger Durling, perched before a fireplace in a suite at the swanky El Encanto hotel, alongside a compact canine as prop and petting object. Durling was dressed in a cream-colored suit resembling the attire of Cohen himself, appearing in a room with a backyard/orchard in the background (whereabouts undisclosed: as one of cinema’s most daring provocateurs, Cohen/Borat benefits from clandestine conditions).
“Do not adjust your computer,” Durling winkingly warned the viewers in his introduction. “You’re actually seeing two people in one zoom square.” In a nod to the anomalous conditions of this year’s mostly virtual SBIFF, Durling added, “Vaccinate yourself if you want to stop seeing ‘Hollywood Squares’ [zoom framing] at the film festival.”
Cohen may be in an apex year, having scored mighty and worthy praises for both his second Borat film and his role as yippie Abbie Hoffman in The Trial of the Chicago 7, both of which have earned him Oscar nom affection. As co-writer Peter Baynham mentioned during the SBIFF Writer’s Panel a few days ago, the Borat “sequel” (for the record, the full title is Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan), came about for a very specific and acute reason: “One word: Trump. This is the reason. There was the small problem of the insurmountable problems in making it.”
Cohen admitted that his former reluctance to resurrect the Borat character, with its dangers and challenges, arose from “feelings of anger and deep revulsion at what was going on in America, and encouraging of racism. Just after the elections and I’d done a tiny bit of Borat on Jimmy Kimmel. I said to my collaborators that we could release just before the election that would get some people to go out and vote?
“We wanted to touch on the idea of misogyny, as well, which was part of Trump’s circle.” Here, he is primarily referring to an instantly infamous scene gone viral, in which the brilliant Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova, posing as a journalist and coaxing Rudy Giuliani into a very compromising position as a seedy opportunist, with hands down his pants, preparing for a sexual liaison with this young “journalist.”
Cohen asserted that “the idea was to make a movie that was entertaining but was also a call to action. We felt we had to make something so we could look in the mirror on Nov. 7 and say, ‘We did something. We were not just bystanders.’”
Fated to be released shortly before the November 4 election, which Biden won (regardless of what the Trump team’s s delusions led him/them to believe), Borat 2 was, in Cohen’s estimation, “A good blow against autocracy. Did our fans go out and vote because of the movie? I don’t know. I’m just so proud.”
As Cohen explained, before his faux real life character adventures began, with Borat, Ali G, Bruno, and other imaginary gadfly figures designed to expose hypocrisy in high and low places, he studied acting and history at Cambridge and worked on a dissertation on the presumed “Jewish-black alliance” during the civil rights movement of the ‘60s. That’s partly where his passion for playing Abbie Hoffman fits in, and why he lobbied Stephen Spielberg 13 years ago for the Hoffman role in Trial of the Chicago 7, which went dormant until writer-director Aaron Sorkin picked up the imperative to get it made.
After being honored with the award by Sorkin at program’s end, Cohen reflected on the commonality brewing beneath the seeming disparity of his two standout films of 2020, noting that both films deal with “the danger of lies and tyranny.”
EDGY BUSINESS: No film festival worth its salt is complete without some edgy and/or criminal dealings and two of the grittier numbers this year satisfy the hunger, even if ultimately flawed. The American independent Snakehead, directed by Evan Jackson Leong, is marginally about the powerful drive for immigrants to escape harsh conditions back home for the presumed better life in America. But its real domain, and source of guilty pleasure, is all about the seamy underbelly of the human trafficking and other criminal dings in New York City’s Chinatown.
Argentine director Juan Pablo Félix’s intriguing film Karnawal relates to Carnival only peripherally, as our young hero, the teenaged Cabra, strikes a gun-smuggling bargain amidst the bacchanalia of a festive Carnival celebration early in the film. What ensues are brushes with seedy goings-on with his father, fresh out of prison, his mother’s volatile new boyfriend, and assorted wrangling on the brink of crime and punishment.
But the ultimate, cathartic energy force is his passion for Malambo dancing, and an emotional finale at a dance competition which briefly brushes aside the skullduggery before it. Gotta dance, even when your world is raucous all around you.