December 22, 2011
It may feel like BORAT but Mads Brugger's documentary is a comical look at an unfunny place
A documentary that feels more like Borat than traditional examples of its genre, THE AMBASSADOR nevertheless offers a revealing look at corruption in Central Africa. And while director Mads Brügger’s intentionally crude impersonation of a semi-racist diplomat and real-life repercussions of his actions should prove controversial, crossover potential for the film is unusually high, with further festival engagements sure to come.
Brügger, who rode to Sundance-fame in 2010 by covertly entering North Korea as a communist theatre director for THE RED CHAPEL, ups the ante by purchasing a Liberian ambassadorship to the Central African Republic for a mere €150,000. Setting up shop in a hotel penthouse, he gets to work on his cover story – building a match factory to be staffed by pygmies – while simultaneously pursuing his ”real” goal: a diamond deal that will allow him to leave with precious stones well hidden in his diplomatic luggage.
This seems an almost impossible stunt to pull off, let alone doing it on camera, but Brügger brazenly manages by exploiting the ignorance of his African counterparts: while some of the footage was shot with hidden cameras, most of it was captured with a Canon EOS 7D, which simply does not look like it can capture HD (and, most importantly, sound).
His most important asset, though, was the persona he created for this special assignment: dressed like a warped version of a colonial overlord, complete with riding boots and an assortment of pipes, cigars and cigarette-holders as props, he regales his guests with inappropriate anecdotes, racist comments and naïve questions.
In short: he comes across as a perfect sucker – which is what an assortment of politicians, businessmen, attorneys and assistants immediately take him for, falling over one another to get to his bank account first, without taking the time to check into his background.
All of this proves highly entertaining, but as the story progresses, Africa’s more dangerous aspects rear their ugly heads: important contracts vanish, the paid ambassadorship does not go through and the country’s head of internal security, whom Brügger had secretly filmed several times, is assassinated.
These developments cause a shift in tone which is capably handled by Brügger and his editors, turning the film’s last 30 minutes into a thriller without sacrificing its inherent humor. More importantly, he’s slowly reminding the audience that THE AMBASSADOR is not a piece of funny fiction but a real-life satire set in an all too uncomfortable reality.
This reality provides the film’s main fodder for controversy, too, since Brügger does not just con real-life dictators (or their kin), but also a tribe of pygmies who (one assumes) learned how to fabricate matches for a factory that will never be built. Brügger also supplied funds for a diamond mine that employs children and willingly bribes corrupt politicians with envelopes full cash (named “envelopes of happiness”). To be fair: almost everybody he meets during the course of the film is out to con him, but a moral implication remains, since “collateral damage” is not a term normally associated with filmmaking.
Less relevant in real life, but probably harder to stomach for politically correct audiences are his comments: a scene where he regales his visitors with a retelling of Hitler’s beverage of choice before committing suicide can certainly be seen as offensive. His (African) business partner’s reaction (“Hitler is funny”), on the other hand, is highly illuminating and tells us a lot more about ignorance and racism than many politically correct documentaries ever could.
In the end, it will be up to the eye of the beholder to decide.
Which is what makes THE AMBASSADOR so unique: it is highly watchable, clearly (and unabashedly) exploitative and often offensive – but it undeniably unearths some very uncomfortable truths about Central Africa in general, corruption in particular and individual greed on top of it. And – even though the director denies it – it might have been financed in part with the sale of blood diamonds.
Cinematographer Johan Stahl Winthereik does a remarkable job, given the circumstances, with the lower-quality scenes still being intriguing thanks to their content and clever editing. Dialogue is mostly in English or French, but needs subtitles throughout because of heavy accents.
Venue: IDFA Documentary Festival (competing)
World Sales: TrustNordisk
Production company: Zentropa Real
Director: Mads Brugger
Screenwriters: Mads Brugger, Maja Jul Larsen
Producers: Carsten Holst, Peter Engel
Executive producers: Peter Aalbaek Jensen, Peter Garde.
Co-producers: Petri Rossi, Peter de Maegd, Madeleine Ekman
Director of photography: Johan Stahl Winthereik
Music: Niklas Schak, Tin Soheili
Editors: Carsten Sosted, Kimmo Taavila, Leif Axel Kjeldsen
No rating, 93 minutes