Sacha Baron Cohen makes the perfect foreign dictator in his new film
For the wave of children growing up in the ’80s and ’90s to exiled Iraqi parents in Britain, the word “dictator” was just as familiar as “ice cream”. We were raised in the knowledge that there was an undefeatable beast destroying the esteemed land where civilisation began. We rarely spoke to our families “back home” in case the phones were tapped, our parents collected documentaries on Saddam Hussein’s wars and atrocities, we recognised all too well the chilling videos in which Saddam would casually wave his hand to instruct execution, and hell, we even owned illustrated torture books written anonymously by political prisoners of his regime.
Accordingly, when in 2003 the beast was toppled, by the very hands that put him there no less, there was much confusion. New, unanticipated evils emerged. The events that followed, peaking in the Arab Spring of last year, only served to enhance the symbol of the deluded, villainous tyrant, sleazily suited or suspiciously cloaked. There was Ben Ali, there was Mubarak, and, oh boy, there was Gaddafi. It was material fit for a movie. And in came Sacha Baron Cohen.
On first hearing that Cohen was going to play the role of the dictator in Larry Charles’ new film, I was both unnerved and excited. Taking such an emotionally loaded setting and creating a character based on fresh memories seemed to be a massive task, and I wasn’t sure how he’d pull it off in a comic context. On top of this, I can’t say I am a massive fan of Cohen. I never bothered to see Borat, Bruno, or even, I dare say, Ali G. I was slightly on the younger side at the time and wasn’t much inclined towards the whole offending business. But a combination of curiosity and the need for slapstick comedy led me to the cinema. As it happened, I wasn’t disappointed.
The Dictator tells the story of Aladeen (ring any bells?) from the Republic of Wadiya, who assassinates relentlessly and is plotted against repeatedly. After a trip to the United Nations in the USA, what he calls “the devil’s nest”, he is abducted and his trademark beard viciously removed, while his double – an incompetent, goat-herding villager from the mountains – takes centre stage. In Aladeen’s attempt to get back to his ‘supreme leader’ role to oppress the people, he ends up working in an organic grocery store with other refugees and falls in love with the owner, Zoey (Anna Faris), a hairy-armpitted, anti-dictator, anti-everything, hippy-esque campaigner.
The film maintains the laugh-out-loud factor throughout and even induces spontaneous applause – a rare thing to see from our politically correct British audience. Unlike the reality TV style of previous films, where practical jokes were the order of the day, this film is glossy all over in true Hollywood style, rendering the crude scenes even cruder. Aladeen’s palace is a neat reflection of Disney’s The Sultan’s Palace, and over-indulgence is manifested in various amusing ways.
Cohen manages to weave together the airs of an ultimate dictator in the most hyperbolic and ridiculous of ways. Like his real-life counterparts, Aladeen is a performer. An overstated nationalist. A leader emanating love for his people. Where Saddam inscribed his name into ancient Babylonian remains and had the whole Qur’an etched in his own blood, Aladeen plasters his name wherever he can, coining new and bewildering meanings, thereby epitomising the self-obsessed, self-proclaimed hero figure. He wins sports competitions, he wins elections, and pretty much everything else worth winning.
But it is not only dictators who are unsafe from Cohen’s ridicule. There is no shortage of Middle Eastern stereotypes in this movie; the “A-rabs” are very much heavy-accented, hairy-faced, penny-pinching, sexual monsters and oppressors of women. Every time Aladeen opens his mouth to speak Arabic (despite the dramatic pronunciations, none of it was actually Arabic) he had the entire audience spluttering with laughter. He tells Zoey – pronounced “Zo-aay”, with a glottal emphasis on the ‘a’ – that women going to school is cute: “It’s like a monkey on roller skates. It means nothing to them but is adorable to us.”
So, are the lovers of democracy the real heroes of this film? Far from it. For most of the film, Aladeen is in the USA, and a plethora of flawed attitudes and greedy characters are presented. The American kidnapper, for instance, is an ignorant mess, barely able to comprehend what lies beyond the borders of his country. In fact, by the end, the definitions of democracy and dictatorship are so convoluted that it’s hard to figure out who to laugh at. This weaved definition extends to race, religion, and even the soundtrack – a good example of cosmopolitanism gone crazy.
Cohen proves to be a gem from the British comedy and acting world, and he knows exactly what he is depicting. Many critics will label The Dictator as a racist film. To deny the racial stereotyping would be ludicrous. But rather than just mocking the characteristics of these groups, Cohen seems to mock our perceptions of them, so it backfires quite uncomfortably on a few occasions. Whether categorisations will become enhanced in the mind of the audience is a tricky question, especially in a story which brings the symbolism of very real despots to the screen.
As such, The Dictator succeeds in being both stemmed in truth, and yet so far from it – but for me, in this instance, the funny prevailed.
Image from: http://insidehollywoodmovies.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/red-band-trailer-for-sacha-baron-cohens.html
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