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.)