In theory, anyway. The Egyptian Dictator, which failed to anticipate the events in Tahrir Square of 16 months later, was apparently a bit on the toothless side. But its release at least showed that it is possible for entertainment to touch on political issues in Arab countries (one of Hosny’s feckless sons in the film, for example, enjoys selling off Bambozian assets to China). Which makes me think it’s a shame that Baron Cohen’s comedy didn’t get released in places where it could have really done some damage.
The Dictator is Baron Cohen’s second-most successful film, and in line with its stronger geopolitical slant, did more business proportionally outside the US (64% of its $167m) than Borat or Brüno. Kim Jong-il (the film’s dedicatee) and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (described as looking “like a snitch from Miami Vice” in the film) were obviously unlikely to have it in their Netflix queue, let alone let their countries watch it. But if the film’s disclaimer – that General Aladeen wasn’t Arab, and so the film is kosher – is to be taken seriously, why couldn’t it get a release in more Arab countries? Especially the ones busy scrapping to kick out their despots: how much more appreciative an audience could you possibly get? But, out of all the Arab or Muslim nations, only democratic Lebanon (where the film performed well – it’s currently the year’s eighth most successful), got its dose of Baron Cohen.
The sticking points aren’t hard to spot. Baron Cohen’s scatological humour rules his work out straightaway in any public-moral-policing Gulf state, even before politics are on the table; a Dubai censor called Borat“vile, gross and extremely ridiculous”. I would love to be in the room if that man ever views The Dictator’s birthing scene. As for the politics, it’s much harder to tell how off-putting to Arab countries The Dictator’s are. You can see why they might be too edgy for states in transition – such as Libya or Egypt – or too near-the-knuckle for controlled regimes such as Morocco.
But perhaps it’s the cultural politics that are most damaging of all to its release prospects. Whatever Baron Cohen’s and the writers’ protests, you can’t turn up to the Cannes premiere on a camel and then try and claim you’re not playing with Arab stereotypes. Several of The Dictator’s best jokes (like the Munich Olympics videogame, or the helicopter scene) depend on the tension generated by pushing those buttons, but too many of its worst jokes do, too. The presiding idea may be to lampoon dictatorial narcissism and stupidity, but the film’s aim is too diffuse, and the more the hackneyed gags about Arab pronunciation pile up (yes, yes, Wadiyan is supposed to be based on Hebrew…), the more cultural collateral damage is chalked up in the name of satire.
Racism is certainly what the one English-language review I could find from an Arab-world commentator, Variety Arabia’s Joseph Fahim, takes away from the film: “Aladeen is the product of every cliche the Western world has held of Arab men for many decades: he’s a woman-hating loutish brute who demonstrates an obtuse loathing for the US.”
The Lebanese don’t seem to have been too troubled by that kind of thing, though, so perhaps the film is capable of finding an audience in the Arab-speaking world after all. I’m still not convinced that kind of direct engagement – whether in the Middle East, or other repressive hotspots – was what Baron Cohen and team ever had in mind, though. The Dictator’s post-release publicity machine made play of the fact it got banned in Belarus, Pakistan, Malaysia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan – but the brouhaha seemed for the benefit of western audiences, adding a touch of the postmodern, life-blurs-into-art frisson Baron Cohen can no longer bring into his films. At least half of The Dictator took aim at developed-world liberal hypocrisies, as well as at crackpot regimes. Aladeen’s final address to the UN was a cunning inversion of the corresponding scene in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, but its attack on false American democracy only highlights the priority audience for the film.
So somehow I doubt the Arab world was ever on Paramount’s release agenda. It’s easy to be fatalistic: with little chance of getting the film into most of those countries, why should Baron Cohen cater to them? But his work has skirted Middle Eastern issues in the past, not least via his ever-present hectoring of antisemitism. The Dictator – playing both ends with sly amoralism – is a missed opportunity to go in hard and audaciously on the region’s problems, in a way that would have made itself heard irrespective of whether the film picked up official releases. That would have returned Baron Cohen back to the role he’s always sought: a clear and present danger.
• Next week’s After Hollywood will look at whether Nollywood can break through to the mainstream. Meanwhile, what global box-office stories would you like to see covered in the column? Let us know in the comments below.