Film

'The Dictator' Rules!

Instead of aiming for the prejudice or stupidity of its unsuspecting marks, this movie goes back to the typical film comedy formula, and comes up a winner.


The Dictator

Director: Larry Charles
Rated: R
Studio: Paramount
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-05-16 (Wide release)
UK date: 2012-05-16 (Wide release)
Website
Trailer

Throughout his relatively short career as an international funny man, British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has been known for his "ambush" approach to wit. From Borat to Ali G, fey fashionista Bruno to whatever else comes out of his crazy head, he has relied on the unsuspecting nature of his various real-life victims to fetter out laughs. Now, he's decided to dump the faux documentary style of his previous films to make The Dictator, a splashy Summer movie in which a despot with a desire to rule the world (or at the very least, destroy Israel) finds himself a fish out of water in New York City. While a tad too truncated in its narrative, it proves that Cohen doesn't need the "gotcha" to get people to laugh. He is genuinely funny no matter the setting.

Admiral General Aladeen (Cohen) is the power-mad ruler of the tiny African nation of Wadiya. A harsh tyrant with a quick temper and a backward way towards treating his people, he is currently under investigation by the UN for war crimes as well as a secret nuclear arms program. At the behest of the world and the advice of his loyal uncle (Ben Kingsley) - the rightful heir to the throne, by the way - he plans a trip to Manhattan to address the charges. Once there, he is part of a plot to overthrow and kill him. Soon, sans his signature beard, Aladeen in adrift in Manhattan, unable to survive without his collection of servants and Yes Men. Running into an activist health food store owner (Anna Faris) who wants Wadiya punished, he finds work...and a way to get revenge. With the help of an exiled dissident scientist from his homeland (Jason Mantzoukas), he will find a way to thwart his uncle's plans.

At its core, The Dictator is a plausible, stranger in a strange land premise taken to ridiculous heights by Cohen and his chief collaborator, director Larry Charles. The two have been together since a certain Kazakhstani reporter became a global phenomenon and their current comfort level shows. Cohen is capable of great things, and within the dynamic set-up in this film, the man behind the lens simply lets him loose. There are several hilarious sequences in this film, from the opening montage meant to explain who Aladeen is to an on point deconstruction of the whole New Age/Whole Earth movement circa 2012. Yes, there are still gross out gags, almost all revolving around bodily fluids/parts and the brandishing of same, but there are set within a farcical fairytale that reduces terrorism to a trick and political unrest to a well-practiced parlor game.

Don't be mistaken, however. There is also a lot of bite, especially within Cohen's desire to explore the connection between fascism and the current state of the Western world. He takes down China as well as other multinational controlled countries. Elsewhere, during a last act press conference, Aladeen satirizes the present state of the US in such a ballsy manner that you'll hardly miss the message. He also attacks that most sacred of cows, 9/11, in a similarly sly fashion. Without going directly into the policies within the Middle East, The Dictator also provides a glimpse into the subtextual stakes involved. Oil is briefly mentioned, as is a hatred of a certain Jewish State. Yet instead of milking the obvious, Cohen goes for outside the box targets, and almost always hits his mark.

His co-stars certainly help. As the nuclear researcher "murdered" by Aladeen's flunkies, Jason Mantzoukas is a revelation. Instead of playing an Andy Kaufman like level of lost foreigner, he is articulate, intelligent, confrontational, and always ready to tear down his former boss's bravado. With a single line reading - or word ("Really?") he reduces the despot into the weak-willed wannabe he truly is. Faris is also fascinating as the common hairy armpitted Earth girl cliche. Her performance is so open and honest that we really don't mind that Cohen and company are mocking her organic obviousness at every turn. We expect body image and grooming jokes. The Dictator takes this material to truly dizzying heights.

As you can probably guess, this is a very un-PC film. Cohen doesn't believe in taboos. Instead, he believes in using everything and anything to get people to laugh. This comes through loud and clear during a scene where a woman goes into labor while in Faris' store. From the blatant jokes about where babies comes from (and the mangled man-handling of same) to the stereotyping of gender bias within many Third World countries, Cohen and company continuously hit home runs. On the other hand, there is also a hurried feeling to the humor, as if the comedian can't wait to get to the next set-up and punchline.

Indeed, this sense of being rushed undermines some of The Dictator's effectiveness. We want many of these jokes to sink in and sit with us, to make their point before passing the torch to another collection of bits. We could use more time in Wadiya, more insight into the way in which Cohen sees the oppression and backwards nature of the Middle East. We could also spend hours in Faris' store. It's like every Woody Allen joke from the '70s manifested in a contemporary fair trade, pro-PETA conceit. Since he takes on everyone and everything with the same churlish glee, the attacks seem strangely fair. The wounds may be deep, but everyone is similarly sliced up.

Perhaps the best thing about The Dictator is the ditching of the whole 'fiction in the real world' mentality. We don't have to sit back, uncomfortable, as unwilling participants in Cohen's comedy make fools of themselves. Instead of aiming for the prejudice or stupidity of its unsuspecting marks, this movie goes back to the typical film comedy formula, and comes up a winner. If you want to see more of what made Cohen a household name initially, The Dictator will disappoint you. If you want to see where his career may be going in the future, this fine, funny entertainment will offer up some hilarious hints.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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