The Provocative Baron Cohen Clan
Other movies in the works are Radio Active starring Mickey Rourke and The Blind Bastard Club with Lenny Kravitz. Dark humor, social observation and themes of violence pervade Ash’s films. In American culture, he says, “there seems to be an unfulfilled craving and love for violence.” His 2002 documentary, Little Warriors, about 11-year-old children living with AIDS, won an award from the Discovery Channel, and he has recently completed a sequel, Little Warriors: Big Fists, about the same group at age 17.
Ash says he and his cousin Sacha are supportive of one another, though they’ve never worked together. “The only thing I can say is that we’ve both really watched out for each other,” he told Esquire. “We’ve both had situations where it’s been good to have the other guy there to call up. For years, we were each other’s only family here.”
Their films are very different. Much as Sacha has exposed shortcomings like racism and homophobia, Ash has focused on American gun violence—much rarer in Britain, he points out. In America, he says, “I feel a bit of an outsider; that’s the nature of an artist; looking…from the outside.”
Growing up as a Jew in Britain has given Simon Baron-Cohen a sense of what it means to be an outsider. “Being Jewish in North America you can be much more open with it; it’s more of a comfortable thing,” he tells me in his office at Trinity College, Cambridge. “I think here we haven’t gotten quite to that same point.”
Simon, Ash’s older brother, is a professor of developmental psychopathology at Cambridge University, and directs its Autism Research Centre. (Unlike the other members of the family, his surname has a hyphen, thanks to a typographical error in his first professional article that he never corrected.) He has a gentle, almost diffident, manner of speaking, surprising in an academic who has waded into the provocative ground of sex differences, enraging some feminists with his theory that autism and Asperger’s Syndrome are extreme forms of what he calls the “male brain.” His 2003 book, The Essential Difference, cites studies finding that females tend to do better than males on tests of empathy, while males tend to do better on problems involving tasks such as reading maps or doing math.
He attributes his interest in people who lack social skills partly to his sister, Susannah. Despite being born with brain damage that impaired her intellectual capacity, Susannah was innately social, Simon noticed. That he would devote his life to exploring this subject stems from being part of a religious minority. “Being a member of a minority must make you see the world differently.”
Cambridge did not allow Jews to receive degrees until 1856, and it was not until 1871 that barriers to Jews holding paid teaching positions were removed. “I know academia is just one tiny slice of Britain but it gives a window into where Jews have fit in to the culture—or haven’t,” says Simon.