You may judge the high level of ambition of The Dictator, or maybe just its determination to leave no pee joke unexpelled, no social group unsplashed, by the notice in the end credits that the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the United Nations. I’m glad we’re clear on that. Otherwise, credulous viewers might have thought the United Nations would invite Sacha Baron Cohen to show up in uniform, with a big, square, multicolored trivet fastened to his breast by way of military decoration, and insult the diverse peoples of the world without shame, restraint or the slightest hint of understanding what he was doing. Of course, none of the slurs that he so roundly trills at the UN and elsewhere are so grave as the one that falls back on his own fictional persona: a brutish representative of the North African (Arab, Muslim, all of the above) nations, whom Cohen impersonates in an accent so complexly phlegm- and diphthong-impacted that it tortures “outside” into a four-syllable word. The defamation effected by Cohen’s performance ought to be deplored by all those who really do share the stated commitment of the United Nations to universal tolerance and mutual respect, and who therefore (you guessed it) come in for their own special spritzing in The Dictator.
“That’s not funny!” objects Zoey (Anna Faris), manager of an organic food co-op in Brooklyn, whenever Cohen (or rather Admiral General Aladeen, supreme leader of oil-rich but otherwise abject Wadiya) blithely expresses his contempt for the nearest sub-Saharan African, East Asian, amputee, fat boy or (lowest of all in his esteem) woman. Zoey is a proud member of a feminist, anti-racist, nonhierarchical collective “for people of all or no genders” and so cannot imagine that an impoverished asylum-seeker (which is what Aladeen claims to be when he meets her) could say such terrible things and mean them. They must be failed attempts at humor, she thinks—but in fact each affront to her sensibility (and the audience’s usual standards of decorum) is a raucously successful joke, made all the better by the peristaltic spasms of outrage and forbearance that ripple through her, and by the habit of self-satisfaction that keeps Aladeen from realizing that he doesn’t seem very martial or imposing, now that he’s disguised in a Take Back the Night T-shirt and shorts that fall only to the middle of his long, bony thighs.
Aladeen has found himself in this get-up (which pretty much wraps him, not that he notices, in the colors of the Israeli flag) because the plot of The Dictator has conflated recent military and diplomatic events with the uprisings against Ben Ali, Qaddafi, Mubarak and Assad. As the movie begins, an international coalition led by the United States is demanding that Aladeen explain his highly suspect nuclear program to the United Nations, activists in Wadiya and abroad are yearning for democratic reform, and a secretive elite is plotting regime change. Together, these circumstances conspire to take Aladeen from the gilded and leopard-spotted pomposities of his palace to the homely multi-ethnic glories of Brooklyn, where he hides while plotting his return to power.
As political satire, The Dictator can be summed up as a series of rudely hilarious skits developed by Cohen, director Larry Charles and a trio of former Seinfeld writers based on their understanding of the Arab Spring and their intuitions about its potential disappointments. How much do we need opinions on these matters from five Jewish guys? Let me come back to that question. For now, I’d prefer to talk about the aspect of The Dictator that goes a little deeper than political satire: its celebration of romantic bickering.
At heart, The Dictator is the story of a man who thinks he wants to get his way at all times and in all things, but who discovers that life is sweeter when you have somebody to argue with. In its generosity, the movie gives Aladeen two such loving antagonists: Zoey (the first woman he has ever known who talks back to men in positions of authority) and an exiled nuclear scientist named Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), who, at continual risk to his life, plays an exasperated Abbott to Aladeen’s taller, skinnier Costello. Exchanges between the two men are ping-pong matches of rapidly escalating absurdity, in which Nadal cannot believe the ball keeps coming back to him. The exchanges with Zoey, by contrast, are more like dog-training sessions, which the shaggy-haired Aladeen initially resents as an imposition but soon comes to welcome as a form of play. In the scene where he learns to rely more on himself—an obligatory part of every ruler-in-disguise comedy, here given the characteristic Cohen twist—his bounding exhilaration reaches its height, as the form of self-reliance that Zoey teaches, though revelatory to Aladeen, is well-known to most male dogs and teenage boys.
The exuberance with which Aladeen announces the success of this lesson provides as good an occasion as any to consider Cohen’s peculiar talents as a performer. Whether he’s in character as Ali G, Borat, Brüno or Aladeen, Cohen likes to pretend that he doesn’t care about—doesn’t even notice—what other people think. He may modify this trait by bringing out an essential sweetness in Borat, or by letting Aladeen be just shrewd enough to behave himself when he stumbles, disguised, into an expatriate-run Brooklyn restaurant named Death to Aladeen. All the same, the keynote of a Cohen performance is a kind of self-enclosure, made brittle in appearance by his elongated physique and broomstick posture. In the uncontrolled situations he’s favored in the past, much of the humor has come from the way unsuspecting people were repelled as they bounced off the hard surface, and from the presence of real dangers that threatened to crack the shell. But The Dictator lacks this element of blood sport. All of the scenes are thoroughly staged (if not entirely scripted), and all of Cohen’s interlocutors are actors, starting with Faris (one of the smartest, gamest knockabout comedians of our time) and Mantzoukas (who is new to me, I’m sorry to say, but whose bursts of excitability I will now seek out). The trick that Cohen pulls off in The Dictator is maintaining the illusion of being an inert foreign body inserted into the scene, while throwing responses back and forth with his fellow performers at a tempo that would leave most of us breathless.
It’s also a rule with Cohen’s stories that the character at some point will try to dissolve his isolation (that’s the explicit theme of this movie) but will never do so completely. Compare this incorrigible self-possession with the innate expansiveness of Chaplin, to whom Cohen fittingly humbles himself by giving The Dictator a title that declares it second-best. Chaplin leaks all over the screen, to the point of abandoning his character entirely at the end of The Great Dictator and announcing his thoughts straight to the camera. Cohen, too, gives himself a big speech at the climax of The Dictator. He, too, reveals exactly what he thinks—and in so doing makes it plain that the people who are the ultimate satirical target of his jokes, and those of the other four Jewish guys, do not live in North Africa or the Middle East. (That, at least, should be plain to audiences who already suspected that the views expressed in The Dictator may not necessarily represent those of the United Nations.) But Cohen does not break character in this speech. He just carries on as Aladeen, letting you remain at a distance from him even as his offenses turn into topsy-turvy versions of the opinions you might actually hold.
I close by mentioning that The Dictator contains not one syllable of mockery of Islam and no criticism whatever of the general Arab populace. It does insist, however, that all movie stars are whores.
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Emad Burnat, a Palestinian who works as a freelance news cameraman and photographer for outlets such as Reuters and Al Jazeera, began in February 2005 to record the weekly protests organized in his native village of Bil’in on the West Bank. Israel was constructing the separation fence that it claimed was needed to protect its citizens from terrorist incursions—a fence that put approximately 7 percent of West Bank land onto the Israeli side—and at Bil’in about half the land had been cut off. At the same time, immediately overlooking the agricultural fields that Bil’in residents could no longer reach, construction crews were putting up hundreds of units of high-rise apartments for ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlers. As a court investigation soon showed, this construction was illegal by Israel’s own standards—and yet the Civil Administration somehow was unable to verify that anything was wrong.
The residents of Bil’in, and hundreds of Israeli activists who joined forces with them, had no such problem. This was a case of “daylight robbery,” in the words of Haaretz; and by way of yelling, “Stop, thief!” the people of Bil’in began demonstrating every Friday. Burnat was always there. He had become the unofficial videographer of the village.
These are the verifiable facts underlying the documentary 5 Broken Cameras, directed by Burnat and the Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi, which gives an eyewitness account of the Bil’in protests from 2005 through 2010, when a section of the barrier was at last removed. Burnat supplies voiceover narration for his footage, speaking in a low-key tone that matches the dryness of the film’s title. The cameras were broken, one after another, because the Israeli Army and Border Police continually fired tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets at the protesters (who sometimes threw rocks but were, in the judgment of an Israeli court, more the victims than the perpetrators of the violence). Burnat’s cameras kept getting hit. He did, too.
I can’t say that Burnat and Davidi have shaped the film perfectly. Some incidents are murky, some appear to be just a little staged, and the claim that Burnat acquired his first camera to record the birth of his son Gibreel does not square with his journalistic career. (It does suggest, though, that one or the other of the filmmakers has seen Kieslowski’s Camera Buff.) But the overall story of 5 Broken Cameras is demonstrably accurate; and told in this way, it is terrifying, enraging, heartbreaking and (against all odds) inspiring. 5 Broken Cameras begins its US theatrical run on May 30 at Film Forum in New York City.