“The Ambassador” will make your head spin. Part muckraking nonfiction film, part performance piece, it is a nervy documentary guaranteed, depending on who you are, to enlighten, disturb or offend. Which is what you might expect from a man who describes his work as “a strange mix of Borat and the Economist.”
That would be Danish documentary filmmaker Mads Brügger, whose previous film, “The Red Chapel,” took his particular brand of political theater of the absurd to North Korea. Now Brügger is headed off to the Central African Republic, a just-about-failed state he describes, in a typical bit of scathing voice-over, as “‘Jurassic Park’ for those who long for Africa of the 1970s. If Congo was the heart of darkness, this is the appendix.”
Brügger was determined to do a film that avoided the usual suspects of what he called “the generic African documentary — NGO people, child soldiers, HIV patients. I wanted a film where you would meet all the people you don’t usually get to see — the kingpins, the players, the ministers who live a very secure and comfortable life away from the scrutiny of the media.”
Once Brügger discovered the existence of diplomatic title brokerages, shady firms where ambassadorial credentials can be purchased for ready money, he knew he had found his way in. He would enter “a highly bizarre, unchartered netherworld” and in effect make a real film about a fake man. What resulted plays like a bad Graham Greene novel (if the man wrote bad novels) come to unscrupulous, amoral life.
Bankrolled by Lars Von Trier’s Zentropa production company, “Ambassador” opens with Brügger’s sardonic announcement that he wants to purchase diplomatic credentials so he can “operate freely beyond all moral boundaries known to man while still being a respectable member of society.”
More specifically, Brügger wants to be able to “travel the world with a suitcase full of diamonds.” He wants to buy illicit stones mined in combat zones, known as blood diamonds, not from a desire for easy money but to demonstrate how simple it is to subvert international sanctions against this type of activity.
In this quest, Brügger allows nothing to hinder him, and that includes the conventional rules and morality of journalism. Cinematographer Johan Stahl Winthereik used a deceptive camera that looks like it shoots stills, and hidden equipment was employed as well. Brügger’s rationale? “As a dedicated diplomat, I have no problem filming my meetings in secret. This goes with the territory.”
The first people he films clandestinely are the shady individuals from whom he explores buying credentials. For $135,000, Brügger ends up being named a Liberian consul and ambassador at large to the Central African Republic, with an honorary MBA from Monrovia University and a Liberian driver’s license thrown into the bargain.
Brügger doesn’t enter the CAR unobtrusively; he makes sure to act the part, outlandishly employing white suits, sunglasses, cigarette holders and polished cavalry boots to make him look the part of the clueless exploiter. Everyone seems to view him as a useful idiot, not realizing his intent is to turn everything upside down.
Because he’s been told that successful smugglers need a business cover story, Brügger pretends that he plans to build a match factory for a new brand he is calling “The Ambassador — He Lights Up Africa.” He flies in a consultant from India and is unapologetic about giving his potential local employees “a false sense of hope. But let me assure you, diplomats do this every day all across Africa on a much larger scale. It’s a part of the game.”
With liberal use of what he calls “happiness envelopes,” otherwise known as bribes, Brügger finds he can arrange meetings with almost anyone he wants to, up to and including the sinister head of state security as well as the CAR’s minister of defense, who happens to be the son of the country’s president. Anything nerve can accomplish, Brügger can do.
It’s not just the filmmaker’s audacity that knows no bounds: His political incorrectness and willingness to exploit are similarly unconstrained. He makes racist comments, solicits jokes about Hitler and employs Pygmies as personal assistants because locals think their presence is good luck. And when he takes the Pygmies out for a boat ride, he puts Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” on the soundtrack.
Part of Brügger’s MO in “The Ambassador” is to get us, in a sense, to share the shame of what can happen when corruption is unchecked. If the way he is acting on film makes us uncomfortable, the film asks, why aren’t we doing more to stop it when it happens on a much larger scale? It’s a very good question.
No MPAA rating; in English, Danish and French, with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: At the Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre, Los Angeles