Outrageous, gutsy and potentially offensive, it’s no surprise that Danish documentary The Ambassador is produced by Lars von Trier’s Zentropa Films. Journalist and filmmaker Mads Brügger won the 2010 Sundance World Cinema jury prize with The Red Chapel, in which he posed as a communist theatre director visiting, and covertly filming, in North Korea. With The Ambassador, Brügger again risks imprisonment, or more likely assassination, by putting himself squarely at the centre of a project that’s jaw-droppingly funny but deadly serious in its intent.
Brügger himself is the child of high profile journalists, and has described his own sensibility as a mix of Borat and The Economist. It’s a potent combination – not performance art, but as commentators have proposed, a new form of ‘performance journalism’.
Here Brügger poses as Mads Cortzen, a wealthy and eccentric European businessman who purchases a dodgy Liberian Ambassadorship to the corrupt Central African Republic (CAR). This lawless country is described thus: “If the Congo is the heart of darkness, then the CAR is its appendix.” Ostensibly there to empower the local people by setting up a match factory partially staffed by pygmies (!), Cortzen’s real goal of smuggling diamonds is clearly understood and accepted by the various politicians, mercenaries and business people he encounters. Every interaction must be greased with cash-stuffed “envelopes of happiness” – though these must be passed between underlings for fear of “getting the hands dirty”.
The French, the Chinese, the African warlords and politicians –all are implicated, according to this documentary, in the heart-breaking exploitation of central Africa’s natural resources and its poorest people. Racism is rife, the jokes are bald, and Brügger’s farcical speeches to his aids and contacts are deliberately off-colour. Not an eyebrow is raised as he jokes about Hitler and pygmies, and insults the Chinese for their “greed”.
There is a scene where Brügger sails down a river gold-lit by sunset. He’s sitting on a throne-like plastic chair in a dug-out canoe steered by Africans, and wearing his designer colonial kit (knee-high boots, fitted blazer, sunglasses and elegant cigarette-holder held just so). It’s not surprising to learn that one of Brügger’s filmmaking heroes is Werner Herzog, and Aguirre: the Wrath of God (1970) comes to mind in this unforgettable sequence. And yet, this beautifully shot scene takes the viewer outside the world of secretive filming and raises questions – even if, as we are assured, diplomatic immunity makes many kinds of filming unproblematic.
The most troubling and convincing scenes are shot in secret, using a variety of hidden cameras. Only a fraction of this footage is blurred and it’s superbly edited to make the complex tale coherent, tracking an increasingly tense set-up. The fact that Brügger is still alive after his trips to Africa and North Korea has had some critics arguing that he must be a fake. Are we being punk’d? You may have questions and suspicions akin to those raised by films like the 2010 Banksy doco, Exit Through the Gift Shop – but perhaps such wondering is part of the pleasure.
A project of this nature begs for a follow-up or a ‘making of’ explanation of its construction, its ethics and its consequences. Brügger will be a guest of the festival, and no doubt there’ll be plenty of questions for him to answer – or evade. One thing’s for sure: The Ambassador will be one of the most talked about documentaries of 2012.
Note: This article was first published as an extended program note for The Ambassador on the website for the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival
It's better in the dark. Obviously we think so, or we wouldn't spend half our lives in front of the big screen, and then the other half writing about it.
*Anthony Morris is a freelance film writer and editor. Since 2005 he has been home entertainment editor at The Big Issue, a magazine he first began writing for in 1997. He has been the film editor for Forte magazine since 1996, and he is a regular contributor to media outlets including Empire, Junkee, Broadsheet, SBS Online and the Wheeler Centre. He is a co-author of novel 'The Hot Guy' (Bonnier) and tweets at @morrbeat *****Rochelle Siemienowicz is a film critic, editor and columnist with a special interest in Australian film. Her work has been published widely, including in The Age, Kill Your Darlings, ScreenHub, Lumina and at SBS Movies. She is a presenter Ozflix, a contributing editor at Metro magazine and co-host of podcast Hell is for Hyphenates. She has also published a memoir, 'Fallen' (Affirm Press). She is on Twitter @Milan2Pinsk.