Sacha Baron Cohen Sued Over 'Bruno' Depiction of 'Terrorist'
December 11, 2009
Sacha Baron Cohen, the satirist behind the mockumentaries “Borat” and “Bruno,” just can’t seem to stay out of courtrooms.
He’s been sued several times over scenes in “Borat,” but now he is a defendant in a lawsuit over “Bruno” that has geopolitical dimensions.
Ayman Abu Aita, a Palestinian shopkeeper, appears in “Bruno” portrayed as a terrorist. Abu Aita filed a lawsuit in the D.C. federal court against Sacha Baron Cohen, David Letterman’s production company, CBS, NBC Universal, and others for libel and slander.
He’s asking for $110 million.
“Bruno” had a storyline centered on Cohen’s portrayal of a gay Austrian fashion journalist who is seeking fame in America. Bruno travels to the Middle East to make peace thinking that it will make him a celebrity. He interviews Abu Aita, while a caption labels the guy as a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a infamous terrorist group.
According to the civil complaint, Abu Aita is prominent businessman, a Christian and a "peace-loving person who abhors violence." He claims, as he must in a case like this, that prior to the release of “Bruno,” he had "enjoyed a good reputation for honesty and a peaceable nature" in his community.”
An essential part of all defamation claims, the papers allege that Abu Aita was never associated with the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, or any other terrorist activity.
If his claims are true, Abu Aita has been labeled and lumped together with heinous terrorists, causing damage to his reputation in his business and community.
The distributor of the movie, NBC Universal, and director Larry Charles are named as defendants in the lawsuit.
Abu Aita also added CBS and Letterman's company Worldwide Pants because, during an interview before the film was released, Letterman had Cohen on to plug “Bruno” and Cohen talked about the scene where his character encounters a "terrorist."
Cohen told Letterman that he had set up the meeting in the West Bank with the help of a CIA agent. Cohen also said that he really was scared for his safety. He claimed to have interviewed the "terrorist" at a secret location chosen by Abu Aita.
A clip of the scene was then shown to the television audience.
The lawsuit contradicted Cohen’s “Late Show” discussion. According to the court papers, the interview with Abu Aita took place at a hotel that was picked by Cohen and was located in a part of the West Bank under Israeli military control.
Both Israelis and Palestinians were unhappy with the way they were portrayed in a place Bruno referred to as "Middle Earth."
Cohen also used his character in the film to set up Congressman Ron Paul. In one scene Cohen as Bruno interviewed Paul, who's obviously not aware that this is a comedic ambush. The interview turned into an attempted seduction of the congressman by Cohen’s character. When Bruno dropped his pants, Paul stormed out.
Cohen also faced a gaggle of lawsuits after his previous film, "Borat.” The most prominent came from residents of a remote Romanian village who said they were misled into thinking the project was a documentary about poverty. Those town folks had asked for $30 million.
Many of those lawsuits were thrown out.
Normally those that appear in film footage sign a release form that to a great extent absolves the filmmakers of liability. A pivotal question is whether Abu Aita signed such a release. His lawyers say he did not.
In addition to claiming a damaged reputation, his lawyers will portray this as a freedom of expression case. They will argue the point that not all Palestinians who are political activists are terrorists.
Abu Aita’s attorney has said the gay associations in the movie could cause danger for the Palestinian.
The first court hearing on the Abu Aita suit could come in late January.
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