The Dictator: Beyond the Film Reel

16 Apr

This summer you will be inundated with countless political ads, pay over $4.00 a gallon for gas, spend 10 hours swimming, watch the Olympics in London, and another Sacha Baron Cohen film, The Dictator, will be released. This will be the third in a notorious trilogy which includes: Bruno and Borat, and is expected to be a summer block buster. Though it will probably not have the frenzied fans and fandom that The Hunger Games has, it’s will probably make a killing at the box office. If you are familiar with Cohen’s previous two films, you already know what to expect and what not to expect. Though I have yet to see this film in its entirety and have only seen the trailer like the rest of you, I cannot say that The Dictator deviates too far from his style. The movie appears to show a fictional Middle Eastern dictator from the Republic of Wadiya and his odyssey in America. At some point he loses his nobel status and has to fend for himself as an average American. The trailer is only 2 minutes long, but is a strong preamble to a 2 hour picture filled with stereotypes, camels, elegance, beards, caricatures, sheiks, bad 80’s aviator sunglasses, and harems. About every stereotype you can imagine about an Arabian dictatorship is there except a link to international terrorism. O wait, that joke is made in the trailer too. Of the scenes shown in the two minute teaser, one portrays the leader parading down the streets of New York City, adorned in honorary garment, and joined by a caravan of camels. The movie seems to be as over-the-top as the fictional character for which it portrays. But the events and people parodied in the film is strikingly similar to real life.

For anyone aware of global politics and its players, the The Dictator is meant to parody the life and times of the former ruler of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi. The real life Colonel Gaddafi has been but the butt of international jokes for as long since Jimmy Carter was President. When addressing the London School of Economics about his country’s tolerance of other religions, freedom of speech, and democratic rule, the crowd openly laughed and scowled at him. The stoic Gaddafi continued on seemingly unaffected. The same thing happened in an interview with Christiane Amanpour when Gaddafi responded that, “All my people love me.” This is mirrored in the film in scene which Cohen’s character says, “ I’m for free press, fair elections, and equal right for women,” only to start laughing abruptly as he says women. While the scene depicting the Colonel riding through the streets of New York via camel seem ridiculous, they are not that far from reality. When traveling abroad in his later years, Gaddafi often brought his tent and nixed the 5 start accommodations he would receive as a diplomat. It was reported a time or two that the former Libyan leader actually brought a fleet of camels. In the case of his 2009 visit to New York, he set up his tent in the yard of a mansion owned by Donald Trump. While the film satirizes the dictator of Wadiya, it is intended to lampoon the hijinks of the real Mummar Gaddafi.

The trailer is not the only piece of media associated with The Dictator. A fictitious Republic of Wadiya website,, was set up to promote the country. This isn’t your typical website which promotes a movie, and it is not your typical governmental website either. Viewers have four language choices; English, French, German, and Wadiyan. If you haven’t heard of Wadiyan before don’t feel bad, it is not a real language. However, it sure appears to be similar to Arabic or another Middle Eastern script. The website is flooded with all sorts of external links. North Korea, Iran, Cuba, and Zimbabwe all have links on the Wadiyan website. What’s notable about these links is that they are the official government site to the respected religion. If you click on the link to Iran, you will be directed to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s own site. Back on, you will also find the complete history of Wadiya. Of course all the proper nouns are fictionalized, but so are the events. One event reads, “Supreme Leader Shabazz Aladeen gave a great gift to the world when he decided to be born. He was seventh son of the glorious Wadiyan President-For-Life Omar Aladeen. His mother was an Air France stewardess who tragically died of an oxygen underdose shortly after Aladeen’s birth in 1982 – this fact means he is now 30 years old. Any photos you may have seen of Aladeen as a child in the mid-70s, including a great one of him at the premiere of Saturday Night Fever, were doctored by the corrupt Zionist Western media.”


The website and trailer for the film The Dictator employs many of the techniques often used to depict Arabs and Muslims in American media. Often countries are fictionalized, given a false location or name, in order to subdue any offense a real nation might take to the jokes made on its behalf. In this case, the real country Libya is replaced with the Republic of Widya. The fictional Widaya is nestled between Somalia and Ethiopia on the Horn of Africa. This is a change from Borat which used the real country of Kazakhstan. Another tactic used is to associate or depict an Arab or Muslim character as a terrorist. This has certainly become prevalent after 9/11 but has been a common trope of empire since the mid 1970’s. There were two scenes which imply that this will happen in The Dictator. The first features Sacha Baron Cohen’s character being greeted by John C. Reilly’s. As they are walking up the stairs, Reilly says to Cohen, “You should check out the Empire State Building before you or any of your cousins take it down.” Obviously this is drawing a parallel between 9/11 and the government of that country. This was a similar parallel drawn between the government of Iraq and their former leader Saddam Hussein.


This film also features example of both inferential and overt racism. While the example of overt racism are pretty clear, the inferentially racist comments are not. Inferential racism works covertly and work through what it implies. The most clear example of inferential racism occurred on both the trailer and website. I am referring to the mockery of Arabic that is present. Cohen’s character declares, “WTF, What the Fuhurmahjalaharmajeah.” A continuation of this sort of thing is done on the official website as you have the option viewing the page in Wadiyan.

From what I have seen,the veil between this film and Borat is very opaque. Many criticized Borat for perpetuating stereotypes and ruining the reputation of Kazakhstan. However, it also made many people look very silly for doing this. Gender equality was lampooned in one statement in Borat. The gender gap is often exaggerated to be much higher than it is in some countries and the character Borat made it look ridiculous when he stated that, “Kazak women plow the field like oxen do in other countries.” It was comments like these which peppered the movie that I believe embellished stereotypes and made them so ridiculous that they must be false.

This type of film can be both helpful and harmful. While any benefits this movie might have a minimal at best, the negative consequences carried as an externality could be heavy. The danger is not that smart people will see this movie and have their mind changed. This movie will not sway the opinion of anyone who has taken the time to research the man Mummar Gaddafi. I would go out on a whim and say that this movie will not even influence those smart enough to know who Mummar Gaddafi is. Chances are this will just be a parody to them, depending on their sense of humor, it may be a funny one. The problem with this film is that it can prey upon peoples’ false pre conceived notions or lack of knowledge towards the subject.

This can become the single story. While just about everyone knows that this movie is fiction, it could be interpreted as reality. One could start assuming that all government and countries in the region are similar to that of the fictional Wadiya. The scenes within the country blend together and become the reality of all countries in the region. Similar events in the world make this film contemporary and relevant, therefore they bear more influence.

It is not fair to judge the whole movie The Dictator based on a two minute trailer. Trailers do not tell the whole story of the film. While this seems to be a continuation of everything that Borat was, I cannot make that claim. Certainly there will be all the cheap laughs that the previous movie had, but was the film meant to belittle or satire? One could argue that this film is extremely hegemonic and portrays the often stereotyped Middle East in the same traditional ways. However, a contrary argument could be made. You could contest that this film satirizes those same traditional representation and makes them look ridiculous. Ultimately, people will walk away with their own opinions. Perhaps the best advice to keep in mind comes from the film itself, “Viewer discretion is advised.”

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