'Borat' hit-and-run MO leaves bad aftertaste

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There continues to be a lot of talk in this magical land of smoke and mirrors about the strategy employed by the makers of "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" in enticing ordinary dupes to look like fools on film.

The hidden camera, of course, is a television staple that dates to the very origins of the medium itself. With his "Candid Camera," a genius named Allen Funt gently spoofed human nature and the art of capturing people "in the act of being themselves." The past decade has brought a decidedly meaner tone to the clandestine lens that's embodied in a certain "Gotcha!" spirit -- as with MTV's "Punk'd."

"Borat," however, was not technically a hidden camera undertaking but more one of hidden agenda. The unwitting individuals reportedly were told on the release form that they were participating in a Kazakh TV documentary rather than an American big-screen comedy and that it never would be shown in the U.S.

If accurate, this in itself implies fraud. And perhaps that's why lawsuits have started to fly in 20th Century Fox's direction. What I wonder is why Fox would allow it to come to this. Why wasn't someone out there with a checkbook cutting low six-figure sums to anyone who might raise a fuss at his/her abject humiliation in a blockbuster feature? For less than $1 million -- and probably well below $500,000 -- all of this bad press could have been avoided for a film well on its way to surpassing $150 million domestically.

I don't buy the argument that Fox ultimately saw the postproduction schmoe eruption as good for "Borat's" business. It speaks instead to shortsightedness, a tightfisted corporate culture and a genuine arrogance.

Am I misreading this? For an answer, I sought out a ranking expert on the deception-as-entertainment conceit: Erik Nelson, who via his production company Creative Differences took the hidden camera genre to the next level with shows like the 1999 UPN karma-dispensing series "Redhanded" and Fox's employee-exposing extravaganza "Busted on the Job: Caught on Tape."

Nelson believes that those who ran interference for the Sacha Baron Cohen farce were inexperienced in the ways of hidden camera legalities/ethics, leading to the present bitter aftertaste and litigation.

"Even if people sign a release, they can still claim after the fact that they didn't know what they were getting into," Nelson points out. "That's why when you do this kind of entertainment, you have to go one step further -- as we did on 'Redhanded' in bringing back our 'mark' to screen the final product. I believed we needed to get a final sign-off where they saw how dubious we made them look."

Without exception, Nelson adds, "every single one of our victims signed off on a second release despite our having revealed some serious character flaw about them."

This is precisely what the "Borat" team should have done to cover itself and the studio, Nelson emphasizes. "As cynical as Cohen and company were at the venality of Americans, they weren't cynical enough. I believe everyone in the film would have signed off on their pre-release appearance, no matter how ridiculous they came off, because they always think they look good."

Nelson submits that those behind "Borat" had a responsibility to reveal the truth to those who had been duped once filming was completed and should have offered each a cash payout, an invite to watch a cut of the film with a chortling audience -- and presented a second release to sign.

"Not only would they have gotten every airtight release they needed," he maintains, "they also could have slept better at night. Now, of course, it's too late."
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