The Dictator, wildly offensive yet reminiscent of modern-day Arab politics, features British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen as Admiral General Aladeen, a relentless North African tyrant who goes through a bizarre series of life-changing events in New York.
In telling the story of the leader of "Wadiya," a fictional Arab country, the film does not leave one Arab stereotype untouched. And that's no overstatement.
The excessive use of slapstick comedy and a wacky yet witty script renders the film a caricature-ish representation of Arab leaders. Yet it still manages to outline the struggle between dictatorship and democracy, which is consistent with political dynamics currently in the Middle East.
The detailed set design is rather impressive; the indecent sculptures and glorifying portraits of Aladeen provide a comic backdrop to the already amusing dialogue. The props that adorn the storyline are clearly well thought out, and they are certainly quirky enough to demand a few laughs. The man has a golden gun. He even conjured up his own Golden Globes and Wadiyan Olympic Games, in order to … you guessed it, give them to himself.
The lavish lifestyle of the Supreme Leader Aladeen is represented in a cartoon-like manner; he lives on a gigantic estate with golden domes located amid a barren desert. The bird’s eye view of his expansive mansion is a scene-setter. The film takes you to a world that could not exist. You are not about to stumble into life in a North African country. Yet the politics is fairly accurate. Nuclear bombs, an imbalance of wealth, clinging to power, resistance, unjustified killings; it all surrounds the bearded, Middle-Eastern dictator.
In an interview with NPR, Sasha Baron Cohen reveals that in playing this role he was inspired by former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. "Dictators are ludicrous characters, and, you know, in my career and in my life, I've always enjoyed sort of inhabiting these ludicrous, larger-than-life characters that somehow exist in the real world. And just looking around, you know, over the last 10 years in particular, I kind of became obsessed [with] Colonel Gaddafi, amongst others, but Gaddafi in particular because he was so over the top. His dress style was so flamboyant, so ridiculous.”
Aside from ridiculous leaders, hints of revolution on the streets and double-crossing on the inside are very familiar to an audience that has lived through the Arab Spring. Statements such as, "The Wadiyan people love being oppressed," strike a chord with Egyptian spectators, who have arguably been suffering from a case of the Stockholm Syndrome for years. While an Arab audience would laugh off the stereotypical hyperbole, political conflict would deeply resonate.
John C. Reilly is particularly convincing as Aladeen’s racist American bodyguard, who at once declares that he hates all Arabs, who to him are "the blacks, the Jews, those blue, tree-hugging queers in Avatar."
Ben Kingsley plays the role of the tyrannical leader’s deceitful brother, who draws up a plan that leaves Aladeen running amuck on the streets of Manhattan. To the rescue comes Anna Faris as a vegetarian store manager and activist Zoe. Despite finding her hairy armpits disturbing at first (he calls her “Hairy Potter,” which is hilarious), Aladeen learns to like her and the film suddenly bears resemblance to a romantic comedy, with the dictator seen growing a heart — or something like it.
In the film’s climax, it seems for a brief second that the leader would take up democracy. In a dignified satirical speech, the reformed Aladeen pleads with America to try dictatorship, laying out its benefits in a way that reveals the ironic resemblance to its current state of “democracy.”
The movie may bring a feast of laughs, but it is also a stereotype galore. Racist remarks, misogynistic statements, you name it, it’s there. You laugh, that’s for sure, but it’s the type of laugh that you feel guilty about a few seconds later. For instance, during a messy birthing experience Aladeen says: "Bad news, it's a girl, where's the trash can?"
One of the funniest scenes reenacts the typical movie tradition of making up names on the spot based on spotted signs, reminiscent of Robin Williams’ Mrs Doubtfire. In The Dictator, Aladeen becomes “Allison Burgers,” “Ladies Washroom” and “Employees Must Wash Hands,” and … I won’t ruin the last one for you.
As expected, the film did not go uncriticised by Arabs abroad; the National Network for Arab American Communities told E! News they felt the film is “perpetuating a negative stereotype against Arabs and therefore Arab Americans.” In his widely popular movie Borat, Baron Cohen played the role of a Kazakh TV talking head, representing the culture as anti-Semitic imbeciles, which also angered Kazakhs and Jewish groups.
The crude humour and gasp-inducing comments certainly makes The Dictator a film that is not for all tastes. But it’s worth a watch for Arabs, who need a reason to laugh at our dictators. And there’s even a twist at the end.
Director: Larry Charles
Main cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley, John C. Reily and Jason Mantzoukas
Release date: In cinemas now
This movie is currently playing at: Renaissance Nile City, Bandar, Geneina Cinema, Royal Renaissance Sun City, Renaissance 6th October