Acting as African envoy all in day’s work for director
Imagine the heart of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson beating within the body of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, and you’ll have a sense of Danish documentarian Mads Brügger.
In his 2009 film, “The Red Chapel,” he invented a cross-cultural comedy troupe as subterfuge to enter North Korea and examine conditions there. In his latest, “The Ambassador,” opening Friday in Los Angeles, Brügger travels to Liberia and the Central African Republic, where, posing as a businessman with a penchant for safari jackets and riding boots, he exposes widespread government corruption and complicity in diamond smuggling.
“The Central African Republic is a Bermuda Triangle that attracts dodgy and creepy and weird characters. It is the ultimate hideaway,” Brügger said recently, speaking by phone from his home in Copenhagen. “If you need to escape from everything you would go to the Central African Republic. And as such you meet some, diplomatically phrased, special people there.”
Brügger, 40, began his career making more conventional radio documentaries before moving into television as a host of Danish shows. In 2004 he traveled across America in a campaign bus posing as a neo-conservative to make the telefilm “Danes for Bush.”
The idea for “The Ambassador” was born once he discovered a brokerage for diplomatic credentials on the Internet. He was taken aback by the idea they were obtainable for a fee.
“If this is possible, it you can purchase a diplomatic title, it would bring me beyond role playing,” Brügger said. “Purchasing a diplomatic title would grant access to a very closed and secretive realm you never get to witness in most documentaries.”
After researching a number of different brokerages and the countries that make their diplomatic titles available in this gray market zone, he eventually obtained credentials declaring him a diplomat for the country of Liberia, signed by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
He then spent four weeks in the Central African Republic in late 2010 as a Liberian diplomat named “Mr. Cortzen,” ultimately negotiating for conflict diamonds, which he theoretically could have spirited out of the country under cover of diplomatic immunity.
Brügger was in the republic with a three-person crew made up of a security consultant, a cameraman who posed as a press attaché and production manager who also appeared on-camera as his secretary. He enlisted a few native Pygmies as assistants as he met with high-level government officials and mining executives, liberally distributing “envelopes of happiness” stuffed with cash that came from the film’s production budget.
“The most obvious question of course is how come you, a very white guy, white bordering on vampire, how come you are representing an African country in another African country?” Brügger noted of his willfully out-of-place presence. “That simply doesn’t make sense. Nobody asked me this very obvious question.”
One of the most outrageous scenes in the film, which already is available on video-on-demand platforms, comes when Brügger is taken to visit a Pygmy village, and finding that they are all drunk on a local variant of moonshine, joins in a daytime dance party.
“Mads has this very unique ability to improvise, this intuitive feel of what can become a good scene, when things are just happening,” said Eva Jakobson, the film’s production manager and Brügger’s on-screen secretary.
“He invents things, improvises things, to make the situation explode,” added Jakobson, who had never before appeared in a film on camera. “There were situations that were so outrageous I really had trouble not laughing while at the same time I was in a panic that I would, which would completely break our cover. I was constantly anxious they could come on to us.”
The Liberian government has recently come out strongly against the film, declaring that it “will institute legal action” against Brügger with Sirleaf referring to the filmmaker as “an impostor” and “a criminal.”
For now it seems the threat of Liberian legal action holds no actual consequences for Brügger — the Danish government will not extradite him to the African nation for trial. But it does bring up the larger notion of what exactly is the point of exposing the internal corruption of small, struggling nations.
“Mads is very good at making films that start discussions, making people laugh or very angry,” said producer Peter Engel. “That’s what I always hope for in working with Mads, to focus on something to start discussion that is also funny.”
Brügger is next working on a more straightforward documentary — “Unless I change my appearance in a very drastic way, my role-playing days are over with,” he said — about the suspicious death of a high-ranking European Union official.
Despite the catch-in-your-throat humor of “The Red Chapel” and “The Ambassador,” Brügger is at his core still a journalist as much as a showman.
“What is so scary about the whole ordeal is we think of places like the Central African Republic or Liberia as states, functioning countries with institutions and so on,” Brügger said. “In reality they are so completely dysfunctional that a character such as Mr. Cortzen is fully capable of raping the country in a few weeks.
“So the question is what will happen when the real Mr. Cortzen comes to town?”
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