Hey Borat! Not Everyone's In on the Joke

Hey Borat! Not Everyone's In on the Joke

by LegalZoom Staff, December 2009

Along with all the laughs that Sacha Baron Cohen's new blockbuster comedy, Borat, received from its American audiences, it is also clear that not everyone found the movie funny--especially many of the film's actors. From humiliated University of South Carolina fraternity brothers to destitute citizens of a remote Romanian village, Cohen has made enemies across the globe. In fact, many of the disgruntled people appearing in his film are now lining up to take legal action against Twentieth Century Fox, the studio releasing Cohen's movie.

At issue is the damage caused to the lives of unwitting participants in the film and even to groups of people stereotyped in the movie.

One legal question arises from the issue of participants' willingness to appear in the movie, if they did not fully understand the type of production in which they were going to appear. Most of those who appear in Borat are not professional actors reading scripted lines. Rather, many allege they were told they were participating in a documentary and were encouraged to interact with a foreign "journalist." In reality, the journalist was Cohen portraying Borat, a peculiar and antagonistic central Asian man, unaccustomed to American courtesies and customs. The situations Borat created often led to comedic and sometimes embarrassing results.

Fraternity Brothers Taking a Sober Stance

At one point in the film, three fraternity brothers from the University of South Carolina pick up a hitchhiking Borat. During the sequence, two of the young men, while apparently inebriated, make misogynistic and anti-semitic remarks. Soon after the film's opening, the young men took legal action, seeking to enjoin Cohen and his distributor Twentieth Century Fox from showing the movie.

In their complaint, the two men allege that the movie has caused them emotional distress by injuring their reputation and standing in the community. Since the release of the film, both individuals have lost their jobs - one at a large corporation and the other an internship. According to the men, immediately prior to filming Cohen's film crew took them to a bar and encouraged them to drink. Once heavily intoxicated, the boys were asked to sign a release form.

Of course, if they boys were induced under intoxication to sign the form, they could easily claim incapacity to contract. If this is the case, they have a legal leg to stand on. Under contract law, to be legally bound to a contract you sign, you must be of sound mind. Any level of intoxication obviates the signor's clarity of thought and judgment and invalidates the contract.

The men may also have a legal claim of fraud. If so, they would have to demonstrate that they were intentionally told a statement that was blatantly false, with the intent to deceive them. They would also have had to prove that they somehow relied on the false statement and that they had suffered measurable damage as a result.

For example, the young men claim that they were told the "documentary" they were participating in would never air in the U.S. To prove fraud, their attorneys will have to demonstrate that this statement was actually made, that the young men believed it, that it was false when it was told to them, and that it was said so as to purposefully deceive them into believing it would never air in the U.S. Proving fraud might not be hard if the fraternity brothers and their legal team can show that they would not normally behave in this manner, and that their employment termination, caused by their appearance in the film, constitutes a loss of money and income.

Fake Kazakh Journalist Might Face Real Rumanian Lawsuit

Borat's detractors are not only in the U.S. The villagers of Glod, Romania may also sue the movie's producers. Glod was the small village used as a stand-in for Borat's tiny village in Kazakhstan. The leaders of the town allege that the uneducated villagers were induced to perform crass acts unaware of their meaning or that their images would be used for a film. According to a spokesperson, the villagers believed the filmmakers were merely shooting a documentary. In addition, the villagers are alleging that the filmmakers did not pay them adequately for the humiliation they suffered or for the use of their village.

Alternatives To Legal Action

However, some of Baron Cohen's rubes have not sought legal action. TV News Producer Dharma Arthur lost her job at a local Jackson, Mississippi news station after unwittingly booking Borat for her live news show. Borat wreaked havoc on air, urgently telling the host and the viewers about his need to urinate and then proceeding to mention other sex acts. Arthur claims Borat's appearance caused the station to lose faith in her abilities as a producer. She subsequently left her job and found herself spiraling into depression. Arthur went on to write about her experiences in Newsweek magazine.

Taking a public relations approach to combating the negative depiction of their country, Kazakhstan's leaders have spoken out against the character of Borat and his film. Starting in 2004, the press secretary for the Kazakh embassy launched a campaign to dispel each and every untruth spoken by Borat. In addition, Kazakh press secretary Roman Vassilenko reached out to The New Yorker and the Washington insider's weekly, The Hill in an effort to combat the negative stereotypes potentially created by Cohen's character. In addition, Kazakhstan's deputy foreign minister, Rakhat Aliyev has even gone so far as to extend a public invitation to Cohen to visit the large Central Asian country.

Even if legal action and publicity campaigns do not succeed in sending Baron Cohen a strong message, many of Borat's detractors might take solace in a recent report from New York City. After having appeared on Saturday Night Live as Borat, Baron Cohen, still in costume, went to a local bar and play a prank on an unsuspecting New Yorker. According to the report, Baron Cohen asked the man for his clothes so that he could perform a sexual act upon them. The man, un-amused, took great umbrage and attacked Baron Cohen.

No word yet if Cohen is seeking a legal remedy.