No Sex, Please: Ukraine Bans Brüno

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Ade Johnson / AFP / Getty

British satirist Sacha Baron Cohen as extrovert Austrian fashion reporter Brüno, in the red light-district of Amsterdam

It seems there's some truth to the saying "There is no sex in the Soviet Union." When Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan hit cinema screens in 2006, few were surprised that the real-world home of Borat, the idiot-innocent Kazak main character, decided to ban the film as a matter of pride. But now censors in Ukraine are giving his latest film, Brüno, the same no-show treatment, claiming morality — not hurt feelings — as the reason.

Baron Cohen's comedy may be raking it in at the U.S. box office, but the Ukrainian Culture Ministry has failed to see the funny side. It has decided that Brüno's edgy parody of homophobia, with its numerous risqué sex scenes, is too much for Ukrainian citizens to handle and has nixed the film's distribution. Maksym Rostotskiy, a member of the Ministry of Culture's Expert Commission on Film Distribution, says he felt obliged to ban the film "as a psychologist and a lawyer," adding that it contains "scenes of homosexual relations with elements of sexual perversions."

The film, which follows a gay Austrian reporter's quest for fame in the U.S., was due to be released in Ukraine next week. But the commission felt that the country, with its conservative Catholic west and Orthodox east, was just not ready for Brüno and the character's over-the-top sexual antics, including an explicit romp with his pint-size boyfriend and oral sex with a ghost.

Nine out of 14 experts on the commission voted to ban the film, Deputy Culture Minister Tymofiy Kokhan, head of the commission, tells TIME. In their reports they noted that the film "contains artistically unjustified pictures of the sexual organs, homosexual acts, homosexual perversions, sadism and anti-social behavior that could damage citizens' moral health." Kokhan says he would have been inclined to allow the film to be released on DVD, but the majority vote took the decision out of his hands.

Critics have lambasted the ban, saying it reeks of moral censorship. "It's a very worrying sign if the Ukrainian authorities say they are banning the film because of homosexual scenes," says Evhen Minko, chief editor of media-watchdog magazine Telekritika. Given the way the film lampoons intolerant attitudes toward homosexuality, the joke seems to be on them. "They didn't understand it," says Minko. "The commission's interpretation of the film is a parody in itself."

Ukraine's parliament has been on a moral crusade of late, banning gambling last month and, in the past few weeks, prohibiting the possession and production of pornography. Observers have expressed concern that such decisions are a sop to retrograde social forces that oppose liberalization and have the support of the generally conservative Ukrainians. With a presidential election scheduled for Jan. 17, politicians seem to be on the lookout for ways to give themselves a boost in the polls. "[They] are trying to make an impression on society by using the most extreme methods," says Taras Karasiychuk, director of the Gay Alliance of Ukraine. "It's more populism than a desire to protect morals."

Karasiychuk says the ban was not surprising in a country where latent homophobia is fed by a lack of knowledge and stereotyping. But Deputy Culture Minister Kokhan denies that the decision was primarily motivated by issues of homosexuality, pointing out that Brokeback Mountain was distributed in Ukraine after its release in 2005.

It's not only Ukrainian sensibilities that Brüno has managed to upset. Universal Pictures has decided to release a toned-down version of the film in Britain, after cutting out some of the more explicit scenes in the hope of taking it from an 18 rating (meaning only those over age 18 can see it) to a 15.

But Kokhan remains unimpressed. "Watch this film, and it will answer most of your questions [about the ban]," he says. "It's not a film of the artistic values that Ukrainian viewers need."