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nantucket flagBORAT LAWSUITS:page 1 of 4 ( go to page 2)
Contractual Learnings of Movie Extras for
Make Benefit Glorious Motion Picture Industry

by Steven Sarshik

The popular film “Borat,” which chronicled the adventures of a fictitious TV personality from Kazakhstan as he traveled around the US and attempted to gain information about the American people, grossed over two hundred and sixty million dollars, and not incidentally resulted in a number of lawsuits by individuals who appeared in the film and claim they were held up to public ridicule and humiliation.  The cast of characters who have filed suit against Twentieth Century Fox (and others involved in the release of the film) include two frat boys from the University of South Carolina, a driving instructor from Maryland, an etiquette teacher from Alabama, and four village residents from Romania, one of whom, Nicholai Staicu, claims that he is an official representative of the “Town Council” and is acting on behalf of 516 other citizens of the Village of Glod, each one supposedly suffering damages as a result of the film.

The movie “Borat,” is the product of the inventive mind of Sacha Baron Cohen, a British actor who has developed a number of comic characters, including Ali G (a hip hop gansta wannabe) and Bruno (a flamboyant gay fashion expert).   According to Baron Cohen, Borat “is based on a guy I met in Southern Russia.  I can’t remember his name.  He was a doctor.  The moment I met him I was totally crying.  He was a hysterically funny guy, albeit totally unintentionally.”

With the character Borat, the actor is able to expose pretense and delve into some darkly uncomfortable subjects:  homophobia, anti-semitism, and racism, being just a few.  “Borat essentially works as a tool,” Baron Cohen has stated to Rolling Stone.  “By himself being anti-Semitic, he lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudice.”

In another interview, he stated:  “[P]eople really let down their guard with him because they’re in a room with somebody who seems to have these outrageous opinions.  They sometimes feel more relaxed about letting their own outrageous, politically incorrect, prejudiced opinions come out.”  The tactic works extremely well in the movie.  Few of the people who run into Borat end up looking good, or even remotely intelligent.

“Borat, Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” was first screened at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival and released in the United States in November, 2006.  Even before the film opened in the U.S., there was the threat of lawsuits.

Two of the three fraternity boys who appeared in the movie claimed that they were induced into signing releases under false pretenses.  In legal papers filed in Los Angeles, the boys claimed that they were plied with alcohol before being filmed making outrageous comments about women and blacks and watching a sex tape involving Pamela Anderson and bad-boy rock star Tommy Lee.  They asserted that Borat’s success hinged on people being “tricked into making fools of themselves.”

In their legal papers, the boys claimed that they were assured that their identities would not be revealed and that the film footage was for a documentary that would not be shown in the U.S.   They claimed that they were forced to suffer ‘humiliation, mental anguish, and emotional and physical distress, loss of reputation, goodwill and standing in the community.”

Their request for an immediate temporary restraining order was denied.  After a hearing, Superior Court Judge Joseph Biderman denied their request for an injunction, ruling that they had failed to show a reasonable probability of success on the merits or that money damages alone would be insufficient to resolve their claims.

Sacha Baron Cohen had this reaction to the suit.  “This wasn’t Candid Camera.  There were two large cameras in the room.  I don’t buy the argument that ‘Oh, I wouldn’t have acted so racist or anti-Semitic if I’d known the film was being shown in America.’  That’s no excuse.”

The lawsuit by the fraternity boys was dismissed just a month ago.  The judge determined that the lawsuit constituted a SLAPP suit under California law, and that the film involved broad issues of public interest.  “It is beyond reasonable dispute,” the judge stated,” that the topics addressed and skewered in the movie – racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, ethnocentrism, and other societal ills – are issues of public interest and that the movie itself has sparked considerable public awareness and debate about these topics.”  The judge noted:  this movie, “which is part fiction and part documentary, utilizes the reactions and statements of people such as Plaintiffs to subversively satirize the true targets of the movie: ethnocentrism, sexism, racism, and the like.”

The judge ordered defendants to file a judgment of dismissal, and to file a separate request for attorney’s fees, thus adding insult to the supposed injury suffered by the naïve litigants.