11/11/06 - News section
Borat film 'tricked' poor village actors
By BOJAN PANCEVSKI and CARMIOLA IONESCU, Mail on Sunday
When Sacha Baron Cohen wanted a village to represent the impoverished Kazakh home of his character Borat, he found the perfect place in Glod: a remote mountain outpost with no sewerage or running water and where locals eke out meagre livings peddling scrap iron or working patches of land.
But now the villagers of this tiny, close-knit community have angrily accused the comedian of exploiting them, after discovering his new blockbuster film portrays them as a backward group of rapists, abortionists and prostitutes, who happily engage in casual incest.
They claim film-makers lied to them about the true nature of the project, which they believed would be a documentary about their hardship, rather than a comedy mocking their poverty and isolation.
Villagers say they were paid just £3 each for this humiliation, for a film that took around £27million at the worldwide box office in its first week of release.
Now they are planning to scrape together whatever modest sums they can muster to sue Baron Cohen and fellow film-makers, claiming they never gave their consent to be so cruelly misrepresented.
Disabled Nicu Tudorache said: This is disgusting. They conned us into doing all these things and never told us anything about what was going on. They made us look like primitives, like uncivilised savages. Now they,re making millions but have only paid us 15 lei [around £3].
Cambridge-educated Baron Cohen filmed the opening scenes of the Borat movie in Glod - a village that is actually in Romania, rather than Kazakhstan, and whose name literally translates as 'mud', last summer.
Its 1,000 residents live in dilapidated huts in the shadow of the Carpathian mountains. Toilets are little more than sheltered holes in the ground and horses and donkeys are the only source of transport.
Just four villagers have permanent employment in the nearby towns of Pucioasa or Fieni, while the rest live off what little welfare benefits they get.
So when a Hollywood film crew descended on a nearby run-down motel last September, with their flashy cars and expensive equipment, locals thought their lowly community might finally be getting some of the investment it so desperately needs.
The crew was led by a man villagers describe as 'nice and friendly, if a bit weird and ugly', who they later learned was Baron Cohen. It is thought the producers chose the region because locals more closely resembled his comic creation than genuine Kazakhs.
The comedian insisted on travelling everywhere with bulky bodyguards, because, as one local said: 'He seemed to think there were crooks among us.'
While the rest of the crew based themselves in the motel, Baron Cohen stayed in a hotel in Sinaia, a nearby ski resort a world away from Glod's grinding poverty. He would come to the village every morning to do 'weird things', such as bringing animals inside the run-down homes, or have the village children filmed holding weapons.
Mr Tudorache, a deeply religious grandfather who lost his arm in an accident, was one of those who feels most humiliated. For one scene, a rubber sex toy in the shape of a fist was attached to the stump of his missing arm - but he had no idea what it was.
Only when The Mail on Sunday visited him did he find out. He said he was ashamed, confessing that he only agreed to be filmed because he hoped to top up his £70-a-month salary - although in the end he was paid just £3.
He invited us into his humble home and brought out the best food and drink his family had. Visibly disturbed, he said shakily: 'Someone from the council said these Americans need a man with no arm for some scenes. I said yes but I never imagined the whole country, or even the whole world, will see me in the cinemas ridiculed in this way. This is disgusting.
'Our region is very poor, and everyone is trying hard to get out of this misery. It is outrageous to exploit people's misfortune like this to laugh at them.
'We are now coming together and will try to hire a lawyer and take legal action for being cheated and exploited. We are simple folk and don't know anything about these things, but I have faith in God and justice.'
If the village does sue the film-makers, they won't be the first. Last week, two unnamed college students who were caught on film drunkenly making racist and sexist comments took legal action, claiming the production team plied them with alcohol and falsely promised that the footage would never be seen in America.
Many other unwitting victims of Baron Cohen's pranks have also spoken out against the way they were conned and - unsurprisingly - the rulers of Kazakhstan have long taken issue with the image Borat paints of their vast, oil-rich nation.
The residents of Glod only found out about the true nature of the film after seeing a Romanian TV report. Some thought it was an art project, others a documentary.
The Mail on Sunday showed them the cinema trailer - the first footage they had seen from the film. Many were on the brink of tears as they saw how they were portrayed.
Claudia Luca, who lives with her extended family in the house next to the one that served as Borat's home, said: 'We now realise they only came here because we are poorer than anyone else in this village. They never told us what they were doing but took advantage of our misfortune and poverty. They made us look like savages, why would anyone do that?'
Her brother-in law Gheorghe Luca owns the house that stood in for Borat's - which the film-makers adorned by bringing a live cow into his living room.
Luca, who now refers to Baron Cohen as to the 'ugly, tall, moustachioed American man', even though the 35-year-old comedian is British, said: 'They paid my family £30 for four full days. They were nice and friendly, but we could not understand a single word they were saying.
'It was very uncomfortable at the end and there was animal manure all over our home. We endured it because we are poor and badly needed the money, but now we realise we were cheated and taken advantage of in the worst way.
'All those things they said about us in the film are terribly humiliating. They said we drink horse urine and sleep with our own kin. You say it's comedy, but how can someone laugh at that?'
Spirea Ciorobea, who played the 'village mechanic and abortionist', said: 'What I saw looks disgusting. Even if we are uneducated and poor, it is not fair that someone does this to us.'
He remembered wondering why the crew took an old, broken Dacia car and turned it into a horse cart. He said: 'We all thought they were a bit crazy, but now its seems they wanted to show that it is us who drive around in carts like that.'
Local councillor Nicolae Staicu helped the crew with their shooting, but he claims he was never told what sort of movie they were making, and that they failed to get a proper permit for filming.
Staicu, who had never dealt with a film crew before, said: 'I was happy they came and I thought it would be useful for our country, but they never bothered to ask for a permit, let alone pay the official fees.
'I realise I should have taken some legal steps but I was simply naive enough to believe that they actually wanted to do something good for the community here.
'They came with bodyguards and expensive cars and just went on with their job, so we assumed someone official in the capital Bucharest had let them film.'
Bogdan Moncea of Castel Film, the Bucharest-based production company that helped the filming in Romania, said the crew donated computers and TV sets to the local school and the villagers. But the locals have denied this.
Mr Staicu said: 'The school got some notebooks, but that was it. People are angry now, they feel cheated.'
It's a feeling Glod is used to. The village, like others in the Dambovita region of Romania, is populated mainly by gipsies who say they are discriminated against by the rest of the country.
Indeed, when local vice-mayor Petre Buzea was asked whether the people felt offended by Baron Cohen's film, he replied: 'They got paid so I am sure they are happy. These gipsies will even kill their own father for money.'
No one from the 20th Century Fox studio was available for comment on the villagers' claims.
But feelings in Glod are running so high that The Mail on Sunday saw angry villagers brandishing farm implements chase out a local TV crew, shouting that they had enough of being exploited.
It is small comfort that few, if any, of them will get to see the Borat film. Not a single villager we spoke to had ever been able to afford a trip to the nearest cinema, 20 miles away.
Perhaps that's the real reason why film-makers chose Glod in the first place.
©2006 Associated New Media