Matthew Reddin
Milwaukee Film Festival

Mads Brügger is “The Ambassador”

This hidden camera doc exposes the corruption of Central African Republic leaders and diplomats, but the Danish journalist's own moral ambiguity may be too much to ignore.

By - Oct 3rd, 2012 01:09 pm
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In “The Ambassador,” journalist Mads Brügger turns himself into a Liberian diplomat to record Central African Republic leaders on hidden camera.

There’s no end to the number of journalists who’ve gone undercover in pursuit of a story, with hidden cameras or otherwise. They go into a situation under false pretenses, get exactly what they need with as little attachment as possible and get out before they are exposed.

The Ambassador is something a little different. It does feature a journalist with hidden cameras and a false identity – Mads Brügger, most famous for his 2010 documentary The Red Chapel, in which he poses as a member of a theater troupe performing in North Korea–but in order to get access to his chosen subject, government officials and other power brokers in the Central African Republic, he cannot simply fake a role. He must, and does, become a legitimate foreign diplomat visiting the nation.

Okay, he’s not entirely legitimate. His papers are purchased from an unscrupulous broker, and list him as a representative from the nation of Liberia rather than his native Denmark. But once he’s there, he begins acting like the diplomat he (somewhat-)honestly is, negotiating with locals to set up a factory making matches as a front to disguise what he’s really there for: diamonds.

Add in the other complications of Brugger’s trip into the CAR–a state of political unrest continually provoked and extended by French “allies,” bureaucratic contract negotiations which threaten to put him in permanent debt to his diamond-mining contact or prison or both, a war zone erupting right in the middle of the mines he is investing in–and this sounds like a thriller waiting to happen. Brügger doesn’t give us that luxury, keeping the film on a slow boil all the way up to the end.

What The Ambassador becomes instead is a snapshot of the chaos and absurdity that exists in a region where anyone with deep enough pockets can jump in and carve out their own dukedom of sorts. Simply by keeping the “envelopes of happiness” (a Brüggerism for bribes) flowing, Brügger can work his way up in the system until he’s meeting with the son of the CAR’s ruler, even as he frantically argues with his broker for further documentation to protect him in case that same leadership tries to arrest him. In this world, diplomacy is simply a matter of money changing hands and play-acting.

Brügger interacts with a group of African Pygmies, a collection of minority groups considered to have mystical powers.

It’s disturbing how much Brügger relishes the role though. He cultivates a fantasy version of himself for his time in the CAR, one that chain smokes, wears high boots with a colonial flair, tells Hitler jokes. How much of this is Brügger and how much is African-adventurer-flavor Brügger is never made clear, but what is clear is that he’s often enjoying this “undercover” adventure of his.

Throughout The Ambassador, Brügger attempts to justify his actions throughout the film, perhaps the most morally dubious being his time spent developing the match factory, which will effectively collapse after his departure and leave its employees desolate. “Let me assure you,” he says, “diplomats do this every day on a much larger scale all over Africa. It’s all part of the game.”

Maybe so, Mr. Brügger. And yes, there’s something to be gained on our end from seeing a collapsing African state from the other side. But there’s a difference between a journalist pretending to be a corrupt diplomat and a journalist becoming a corrupt diplomat, and the fact that Brügger looks to fall on the latter half of that spectrum casts a dark shadow over The Ambassador.

The Ambassador makes its MFF debut Thursday, Oct. 4 at 7:30 p.m. at Fox-Bay Cinema, and also screens Sunday, Oct. 7 at 9:30 p.m. at Downer Theatre and Monday, Oct. 8 at 9:30 p.m. at Oriental Theatre. 

The Milwaukee Film Festival runs through Oct. 11 at the Oriental TheatreDowner Theatre and Fox-Bay Cinema. Check out TCD’s Flick by Flick guides for films opening this weekend and throughout October. For more information, visit the MFF website.

Categories: Arts & Culture, Movies

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