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Cohen’s comical approach to the culture of “Dictatorships”, banned in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan

Tajikistan and Turkmenistan will not stand for “Dictatorship” cultures to be made fun of, and moreover, for “Dictators” themselves to be mimicked as spoof characters.

Yet another one of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s characters has been banned in parts of Central Asia, based on what one might consider being merits of cultural and political disrespect. First, it was the comical and offensive Kazakh journalist Borat, and now it’s the comical and repressive dictator Admiral General Aladeen of the fictional African country the Republic of Wadiya.

The 2012 poli-slapstick comedy is described as:

“The heroic story of a dictator who risks his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed.”

The Dictator,” featuring a “Middle Eastern-style camel-riding tyrant,” is a satirical take on the culture of African governments. But, the film is supposed to be based on former Libyan leader, oppressor and indeed “Dictator”, the late Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. “The Dictator” himself, Admiral General Aladeen, appears clad in a military uniform and is overloaded with award badges. Overbearing sunglasses in place, white gloves assembled and posture perfected – Cohen’s character looks exactly the part and the images and practices of the “Dictatorial” culture of Republic of Wadiya follow suit, too.

If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the film’s trailer. Also, if you haven’t yet seen the film but intend to and thus don’t want it ruined, skip over this next paragraph.

The movie starts off with ABN news showing a clip of the Republic of Wadiya becoming a nuclear threat. Admiral General Aladeen was born in 1973, earned power at age 7, has since become rich in oil and has also been the Republic’s Chief Surgeon (who eventually delivers a baby in the USA) for 22 years. Wadiya has its own Olympic games, wherein Aladeen wins 14 gold metals. The “Dictator” changes 300 Wadiyan words to “Aladeen” and is referred to as the “Mad Dog of Wadiya”. The Western show “The Real House Wives of…” is mentioned and anti-Semitism is apparent in the film. The movie is based on Admiral General Aladeen taking a trip to New York City (NYC), USA to address an United Nations gathering. He arrives in NYC riding his camel, along with sports cars and Wadiyan women accompanying him. Sarcastic talk of torture weapons takes place and Aladeen becomes “Allison Burgers”, after he is ousted and a mock character takes his place. Allison meets Zoe, who thinks he is a Wadiyan dissident. Zoe is the owner of Allison’s new work place, Free Earth Collective store. In NYC, there is a “Little Wadiya” part of town, where anti-Aladeen Wadiyans gather. Osama Bin Ladin in discussed in the film, as is 9/11. After Free Earth Collective’s contract to cater the main event – the signing of the first Democratic Constitution of the Republic of Wadiya – is revoked, Allison takes over as manager of the store and earns back the contract. Allison – a.k.a. Aladeen – almost has a change of heart about his “Dictatorship” and “Dictatorial Duties,” but not for long. He nears death to re-earn his real place at the signing of the first Democratic Constitution and rips up the certificate in front of the crowd. However, in his pro-”Dictatorship” speech, he announces his love for “Democracy” – a.k.a. Zoe. The two soon get married, back in the Republic of Wadiya, where free and fair elections now take place.

In the movie, describing the pros of a “Dictatorship” and wondering why the American audience wouldn’t prefer it over democracy, Admiral General Aladeen says:

Your media can appear free but would secretly be controlled by one person and his family.”

You could use the media to scare people into supporting policies that are against their interests.”

Does this ring a bell; Tajikistan and Turkmenistan?

There have been a few predominant reasons, which allude to the preservation of the nation’s controlled culture, that explain why the film is not being shown in Tajikistan – theater space, respectful licensing and audience perception.

AFP quotes the (unnamed) Director of a Tajik film distribution company saying:

“”We do not have space to show it…. We just cannot show all the films.””

Kloop.tj News informs that the Head of the Licensing Office of Tadzhikkino, Akbar Sharipov, said that if a film is shown without a license, then the theater will be fined.

Sharipov shares:

Each film must be licensed as a premiere, and indexed by Tadzhikkino, which will define the age restriction. The film must meet all our criteria, pass censorship, which sometimes means extra points are cut off, before it is shown on the big screen.”

Sales Manager at Tantan, the company responsible for distributing world film premiers in Tajikistan, Daler Davlatov, told Kloop.tj News that “The Dictator” will not be aired because of the “mentality of the people”:

Do not compare us with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and other countries – it is generally wrong, because we have a mentality which is, you know, different. We did not include “The Dictator” onto the main list for these reason.”

AFP also quotes film critic Lidiya Saidova, who keeps a close eye out to make sure Tajiks are not culturally and politically insulted, saying:

““The Dictator’ will offend many people, it’s not likely to be supported by our viewers.””

Kloop.tj News also says:

“A political commentator from Dushanbe, Muso Asozoda, suggests that Sasha Baron Cohen’s latest film could in some ways hurt the “national interests of Tajikistan.”

The movie does indeed hurt the “national interests” of these countries, of which are one under government rule and expected to be followed by all, but more than that – it hurts the culture and national image of these “Dictators” as they are made complete fools of.

About Cohen’s character’s obnoxious appearance at the Oscars, The Sun reports:

“General Aladeen burst onto the scene at February’s Oscars when he arrived at the ceremony with two beauties in military dress and clutching an urn.”

“The Dictator told a TV presenter: “These are the ashes of my good friend Kim Jong-Il and it was his dream to come to the Oscars and be scattered on the red carpet and on Halle Berry’s chest.””

Cohen himself – void of character disguise and of the late Kim Jong-Il’s urn – had an interview with BBCs arts correspondent Will Gompertz, in Cannes, where he spoke of “The Dictator”. The New Yorker quotes Cohen telling Gompertz:

““The great thing about the characters is that they can expose things that, let’s say, a documentary finds difficulty exposing.””

About his new character being a mock of Libya’s late Qaddafi, in the movie which actually was conceived before the Arab Spring, Cohen told Gompertz:

I had always found Colonel Qaddafi hilarious. I wanted to do a character that was inspired by him. And you had all these other ludicrous characters, like Turkmenbashi, who was the President and dictator of Turkmenistan, who renamed, I think, the day Thursday and the word for “bread” after his mother. And when his doctor told him to give up smoking, he banned smoking from the whole country, because he didn’t want to be reminded of cigarettes. And then you have someone like Kim Jong-il, you know, who claimed to have hit nine holes-in-one in his first-ever game of golf, and also Colonel Qaddafi, who had these sort of thirty virgin guards, dressed unintentionally like a sixty-year-old women, and who would break wind when being interviewed by the BBC, as you know.”

So, especially with this direct mention of the culture of language and everyday happenings in Turkmenistan, does the banning of this film really come as a surprise? Maybe for Tajikistan – yes, but for Turkmenistan – no.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Turkmenistan sits at the top of the list of press freedom violators and media repressive countries in the world, raking 177/179. Comparatively, Tajikistan sits at 122/179. For more, check out RWB’s profile of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, for obvious indications as to how and why “The Dictator” is banned in Turkmenistan.

Keeping in line with nationalism, AFP informs that Turkmen “…cinemas now show no Hollywood films at all…”. If Turkmenistan is unwilling to share any Silver Screen film art in their theaters, why would they share the popular film “The Dictator”?

Moreover, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) also gives an example, regarding the culture of language (exactly what Cohen himself explained), which explains why the film being banned in Turkmenistan doesn’t exactly come as a surprise:

“And like the late Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, also known as “Turkmenbashi,” who renamed months and days of the week after himself and his family members, Aladeen replaces many important Wadiyan words, such as “positive” and “negative,” with his own name.”

“”Do you want the aladeen news or the aladeen news first?” a doctor asks his stricken patient. “You’re HIV-aladeen.”"

Tajikistan and Turkmenistan aside, the rest of Post Soviet Central Asia watched “The Dictator” on May 17th. Fergana News informed that the film was to be shown in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in several major theaters, from May 18th – 20th. And for those in the Tajikistan, “Men in Black 3″ is said to be viewed instead.

For those who can’t see the movie – there’s a website that informs about the political, economic and historical culture of the Republic of Wadiya.

On the movie’s website, www.republicofwadiya.com, an ad of a censored video appears. There are photoshopped photos of Admiral General Aladeen with Hillary Clinton, the late Kim Jong-Il, Hugo Chavez and more. The website’s homepage has links to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Presidency website, Portal Cuba, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Muammar Qaddafi’s “The Green Book”, Zappos.com (shoes), Office Depot (stationery) and more. The website can be translated into various languages and has information on tourism, history, weather and more – of Cohen’s mockery state, the Republic of Wadiya. The movie has a Facebook page (256,731+ likes), a Twitter account (88, 730+ followers) and a YouTube Channel (9,554+ subscribers and 27,162,738+ video views).

But, then again… this website – and the the film’s other social media outlets – is likely blocked in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, just as the domain borat.kz was blocked in Kazakhstan.

Recently, Kazakh Foreign Minister Erzhan Qazykhanov publically announced that Cohen’s controversial movie “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (“Borat”, 2006) has had helped to significantly increase tourism in Kazakhstan, and after many years later, is thankful for the film. For more on the cultural damage Borat has done to Kazakhstan over the years and how a bolstered tourism industry can’t exactly shake that, check out neweruasia’s “Borat’s double-edged sword: Flourishing tourism versus cultural representation.”

Based on the ‘boosted tourism’ aftermath “Borat” has had on Kazakhstan, here’s to wondering if “The Dictator” will eventually have the same turn around effect – in the eyes of the political figureheads – and have those in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and other countries smiling. The likely answer is “no,” but even if the movie does see such a turnaround, it still has an extremely long way to go.

RFE/RL compares Cohen’s former films to “The Dictator”:

“”Borat” got viewers to laugh uncomfortably when it hinted that the joke was on them; “The Dictator” sticks to a far more traditional Hollywood formula in both its scripted and improvised gags.”

“But within the framework it sets for itself, “The Dictator” succeeds in cementing Baron Cohen’s reputation as a comedian uniquely able to mine the extreme limits of good taste for their risque humor value.”

It’ll be interesting to see if the censoring of “The Dictator” has a reverse effect on the people of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, in the same way that “Borat” did on Kazakhs in 2007, when “Borat was the most popular film inside Kazakhstan to have been ordered via Amazon.” With “The Dictator” fresh out in theaters, how soon will it take for Tajiks and Turmens to take to Amazon and start ordering – or is this website and online shopping even accessible in these countries? Maybe the black market will be everyone’s best bet for a getting their hands on “The Dictator”.

This thought is not one out-of-the-blue, as Eurasianet.org also says:

“Besides, knowing the booming bootleg business in Dushanbe, pirated copies of the film will likely appear soon at the city’s Green Bazaar, with customers snapping up a “forbidden fruit” that seems all the sweeter.”

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** The image of “The Dictator” film poster above is from the website :  http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/4/4b/The_Dictator_Poster.jpg

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