Australia's Borat stirs up race relations

By Dan Goldberg, October 29, 2009
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John Safran investigates “inter-racial and interfaith love” in Africa

John Safran investigates “inter-racial and interfaith love” in Africa

Imagine, for a moment, a Jewish comedian arousing himself on camera with the aid of Barack Obama’s book. Or being crucified on a giant cross in the Philippines on Easter Sunday. Or transforming himself from a white Jew to a black brother in Chicago.

Sounds like scenes from Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest outrageous satire, right? Wrong.

They’re from John Safran’s Race Relations, an eight-part series that began airing amid a public furore on Australian TV last week.

Mr Safran, 37, is a multi-award-winning comedian from Melbourne. Since 1997, when he streaked through the streets of Jerusalem butt naked — except for an Australian rules football scarf — Mr Safran has done on the small screen what Mr Baron Cohen has done on the big screen: pushed the proverbial envelope with a string of audacious, satirical stunts that have left viewers suspended somewhere between belly-busting hilarity and cringe-filled disbelief.

This is the lowest point in Australian television history

Whereas Borat and Bruno have catapulted Mr Baron Cohen into global superstardom, Mr Safran remains a relative unknown outside of Australia.

This time, however, his highly contentious black humour (pun intended) will probably elevate his profile overseas.

Even before it aired, John Safran’s Race Relations sparked a split, with the Australian Family Association labelling the show “the lowest point in Australian television history” and an editorial in the Herald Sun in Melbourne describing it as “grossly insulting”.

In his defence, commentator Tracey Spicer urged readers of the Daily Telegraph to lighten up.

“Comedy is a vehicle to help us escape our banal, day-to-day existence. It’s supposed to be edgy, to challenge our way of thinking, to push our boundaries.”

The Jews, ordinarily quick to pounce on controversy, have remained conspicuously silent thus far.

The show is ostensibly an attempt by Mr Safran, who graduated from the Orthodox Yeshivah College in Melbourne, to investigate “cross-cultural, inter-racial and interfaith love” — a subject Mr Safran says he has been grappling with since he had a non-Jewish girlfriend at university and his parents pressured him to marry within the faith.

Statistically, the chances of marrying someone from your own faith are slim, he says.

“Being Jewish, it’s such a potent issue in the community and I can engage with it.”

The bespectacled, pasty-faced goon, who once joined the Ku Klux Klan as part of a TV stunt, even visits his deceased mother’s grave armed with a shovel and a kabbalah book as he attempts to unravel this age-old conundrum: “When it comes to love, should you stick with your tribe or escape your tribe?”

He travels to Togo, Japan, Thailand, the Netherlands, the United States and the United Kingdom in his search for answers. He also visits Israel and the Palestinian territories, where he has the gall to covertly put the semen of his Palestinian soundman into an Israeli sperm bank, while donating his own semen to a Palestinian fertility clinic in the West Bank. His aim? To create a “Jelestinian” and solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But arguably his most incredulous stunt was in the Philippines.

“Before they crucify you they just flagellate you and whip you,” Mr Safran recalled. “Apparently I screamed too much… and they were threatening not to crucify me because they said you can’t be on the crucifix when you are screaming. So the whole day was combination of fear of being crucified and fear of not being crucified.

“The pain went away pretty quickly afterwards; there wasn’t much bleeding. I wasn’t gushing with blood.”

True, he doesn’t visit Kazakhstan or Austria, but Mr Safran produces enough hilariously non-kosher vignettes to suggest he could be Borat’s or Bruno’s successor.

His next project? A film.

    Last updated: 5:42pm, October 29 2009