Sundance documentary THE AMBASSADOR


In THE AMBASSADOR, director Mads Brugger exposes the corruption of government officials in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Liberia, along with the diplomatic-credentials-for-sale business. The most important revelation, however is the ease with which the restrictions on the export of “blood diamonds” can be circumvented.

Brugger goes undercover as an unscrupulous European businessman traveling and doing business in the CAR on a purchased diplomatic passport from Liberia. Playing the part to a caricatured extreme, his life-risking audacity pays off in the footage captured by his hidden button-cams. For their parts, the CAR officials likewise come across as B-movie caricatures of corrupt African officials. If this were fiction, it would be bad fiction.

Mads Brugger also directed last year’s Sundance favorite THE RED CHAPEL. In that film, Brugger and a couple friends prank the North Korean government and in the process, come away with an inside look at some of the more wacky parts of that country.

Unlike THE RED CHAPEL, this project was no prank, but an engaging combination of documentary and spy thriller. With people being killed around him, Brugger mostly maintains his cool and pulls off his own political and cinematic coup d’etat.

Cinema-verite has two contradictory schools of practice: fly-on-the-wall or observational style, where the pretense is made that the camera does not influence the activity being filmed, thereby showing a more “real” truth; and interactive style, where the presence of the filmmaking process and its effects on the subject are acknowledged, often overtly pushing the action. The latter is closer to the original meaning of cinema-verite.

THE AMBASSADOR is interactive verite to the extreme. In this case, the tail wags the dog, with the filmmaking process being the reason for a story that would not exist otherwise. Right off the top, I can think of many recent films that fit this style: THE RED CHAPEL, THIS MOVIE IS NOT YET RATED, CATFISH, ENJOY POVERTY and so on. In some cases, such as THE AMBASSADOR and THIS MOVIE IS NOT YET RATED, the story could also be done as interactive journalism, but would not have near the impact or reach in print that it does as a cinematic work. The other two films mentioned would not exist as stories if it were not for the need to film them. There would simply be no point.

This extreme-interactive style is characterized by its exposure of documentary truth, while often having a prankish element. It is however distinctly different from mockumentary in that it exposes truth through the interaction with real situations. BORAT-style comedic interventions cross the line, however, by putting the pranking at the center, irrespective of what truths or falsehoods result. Baron-Cohen’s Jewish jokes in BORAT, for example, don’t reveal anything about the inner-workings of anti-Semitism in the world. At the same time some of BORAT does cross over into authenticity, such as when people in the stadium continue to cheer as he gets more and more jingoistic and violent, publicly exposing these tendencies in themselves.

Is there a category or genre for these wag-the-dog—or maybe wag-the-doc—films? Maybe we should call them extreme-interactive? Or make up a cool-sounding French term.

As a director, I prefer to take a lighter weight interactive verite style toward action and situations that are going to happen anyway. I’ll then push subjects or arrange situations as necessary to provoke action where I see possibilities that may not be apparent to the subjects. I make sure my hand in all of this is obvious to the viewer.

As a film goer, on the other hand, I enjoy the action-for-filmmaking’s-sake style, finding it engaging when done right. It is often the best way to provoke a truth that really is stranger than fiction.

In both THE RED CHAPEL and THE AMBASSADOR, Brugger shows himself to be a brash and brilliant con artist. We can be glad that he is a socially-conscious doc filmmaker and not a crooked businessman.

(Wait, are we sure? Whatever happened to all those diamonds he managed to acquire? Their ultimate fate and value are never revealed.)

6 thoughts on “Sundance documentary THE AMBASSADOR

  1. The Ambassador is subversive and incendiary documentary film in which the maker Brugger unveils himself as an unscrupulous forger with the sole intention to purposely damage the interest of individuals and governments for his own glory to sell his product. The film is produced with public money from the Danish Filminstitute and financed/produced with a budget of €1 million by Lars Von Trier (Zentropa), a controversial film-director who admitted to journalists in Cannes in 2011 to being a Nazi, understanding Hitler. Organizers were not amused and declared him a persona no grata to the same festival. Under influence/inspiration of Von Trier’s ideology, Danish journalist Brugger purposefully took several steps beyond the rules, both written and unwritten. It is clearly a documentary film based on fascistic roots. Take a look at a photo in Politiken
    and see how Brugger presents himself like a neo Nazi on horseback. That explains why he hates Africans and ridicules the TWA pygmy people. Brugger used hidden cameras and false pretences to record and film confidential meetings and telephone conversations without informing his victims or asking them permission or approval by means of adversarial response. Then he edited a documentary film with a specific “Tunnel Vision” to transform a fantasy-fetish into reality to proof his mistrust under the slogan “The end justifies the means!”.

  2. Well, I can’t speak to Von Trier being a “Nazi”, since I don’t know anything about that incident. (Links and citations and sources always help when making outrageous claims, huh?) This is about Mads Brugger, anyway, not Von Trier.

    Looking at the photo, I don’t see anything “Nazi” or “fascist” about it.

    What Brugger did do is expose corruption at the highest levels of government in the CAR and Liberia; he exposed the corrupt “diplomatic credentials for sale” business; he exposed the facility with which one can bypass international restrictions against traffic in “blood diamonds” (see link in my review above).

    Frankly, I don’t see anything “fascist” about this. And I have a very hard time portraying CAR officials or dealers of fake credentials as “victims.” Boo hoo. Cry me a river why don’t you? And what of the fraudsters behind the blood diamond mines, the corrupt lawyers, the corrupt bureaucrats at the bureau of mines, the people who killed the head of security….? Those people are hardly victims of Brugger’s hidden cameras.

    The only people whom I have any sympathy for are, like you say, the African people who were led along into Brugger’s smokescreen. In order to provide cover for what he was really doing in CAR, he pretends to be a businessman opening a match factory. He holds meetings and “trainings” with locals who participate, thinking they might get jobs.

    This is very similar to Renzo Martens’ 2009 documentary ENJOY POVERTY. (Good review here ) In order to make his point, he ends up giving some of the people in the DRC false hope that they can make a living as photographers selling photos of their own poverty. Ultimately this becomes a sad joke on them when it becomes obvious that international press sources don’t want to pay locals, only foreign professional photojournalists.

    These parts of both films left me feeling slightly uneasy. Is it appropriate to give a few poor people temporary false hope and then crush it in order to make a larger point about corruption or the West’s exploitative relationship with the Third World? Will this kind of exposure help make the long-term shifts in awareness and global political and economic policy that will be necessary to achieve long-term goals of justice? It raises questions without any answers and I think that is the point: to get people talking.

    Still, I do not conflate the villagers whom Brugger used as props to the corrupt, wealthy officials whom he exposes. They don’t merely exploit the poor for a few days for the sake of a film. They’ve exploited them, often brutally, for generations and will continue to do so until they are stopped. I hope THE AMBASSADOR helps push that process a step further.

  3. Mads Brugger is a neo-nazi, this becomes very obvious in the movie that he has a very low opinion of Black Africans. He is living out a fantasy under the guise of a movie. In the end, he is actually the only person guilty of bribery, which is caught on film as evidence.

    The film poster for this “documentary” incorporates the Nazi SS runes in the title the “The AmbaSSador

    • Ah, I see, you all are still at it with the “Nazi” stuff. Anything to discredit the points he’s making, I guess. As for the “SS”, let me spell it out: i-r-o-n-y. The types of greedy capitalists he’s impersonating and parodying might as well be Nazis, given their behavior toward fellow Africans. But that makes Brugger a Nazi as much as acting the part of Hitler in DOWNFALL makes Bruno Ganz a Nazi. (Hint: it doesn’t.)

      Yes, Brugger acts—acts!—with apparent disdain and contempt toward Black Africans, pretending to be greedily exploiting them like any other European businessman. By doing so, he gains the cheery cooperation and support of government and businessmen. Well, okay, not exactly cheery. He pays them well for it. That is not an indictment of Brugger’s views toward Africans, but of the contempt with which their own business and government leaders have for them. That is what Brugger is exposing.

      Sorry for all the italics, but it seems some people refuse to accept that Brugger’s irony is exposing blatant corruption. If the officials and businessmen Brugger interacted with had respect for their own people, Brugger would have been thrown out on his ass in ten seconds flat. Instead… Well, we saw what happened.

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