Warning: It may be a while before you figure out why, exactly, people are calling The Ambassador a “comedy.” Then again what’s not hilarious about a documentary that explores diplomatic corruption, the brutal blood-diamond trade, Pygmy exploitation and casual violence in the Central African Republic?
Danish journalist Mads Brügger—who looks like the ill-conceived but not entirely unattractive offspring of Jonathan Ames and Hunter S. Thompson—went undercover in the region, posing as a rich European interested in procuring a lucrative Liberian diplomatic post. Such a title affords you many things in C.A.R., not the least of which is the ability to discreetly purchase a diamond mine, which you can then begin capitalizing on, smuggling its product out of the country (once the right palms have been greased). Just make sure you can trust the people with whom you do business, as they might die, flee the country with your money, find out that you aren’t actually a diplomat and hand you over to the government—or simply have you killed. The comedy is rife.
The first half hour of the film—in which Mr. Brügger searches for contacts to help him buy a Liberian ambassadorship—might lose audiences unaccustomed to the long-term payoffs of the filmmaker’s stunts. If you have seen Mr. Brügger’s 2010 Sundance hit, Red Chapel, in which the gonzo journalist sweet-talks his way into North Korea by pretending to be a Communist theater director, you’ll know he is the Danish equivalent of Sacha Baron Cohen on growth hormone, and with a strong death wish. But without a cohesive prologue to introduce him, nor any explanation of his modus operandi, the film becomes a confusing jumble of characters.
Armed with forged passports and hidden cameras, Mr. Brügger begins his journey into the heart of darkness. Or, as he puts it, “If the Congo was the heart of darkness, C.A.R. is its spleen.” Tensions mount as Ambassador Brügger meets with high-level officials, lawyers and dangerous thugs, all of whom believe not only that this man is who he says he is, but that he’s the perfect mark for their shady dealings.
Mr. Brügger, the filmmaker, has created a character with some odd quirks, like an inexplicable hatred of the Chinese and the French. His racist comments, become more and more brazen as he realizes that everyone will just agree with whatever he says in order to get his business. He celebrates the signing of a diamond deal with an expensive bottle of champagne. “When you drink Moët & Chandon,” Mr. Brügger toasts, “you’re tasting what Hitler tasted right before he killed himself. Cheers.”
“Hitler has many funny stories,” agrees one of the business partners.
To launder his diamond-smuggling money and provide a legitimate front for his business, Mr. Brügger decides to open a match factory in town, with posters showing “the enemy”—depicted as an angry Chinese man. He refers to his bribes as “envelopes of happiness,” and the recipients are too kindhearted—or too greedy—to embarrass this rich white man over his obvious shortcomings in grasping the local language.
As his business grows, Mr. Brügger gets bolder, demanding that city officials employ local Pygmies—rumored to possess magical powers—in his new factory. On arriving at the village where the indigenous people live, he finds that the “Pygmy Party” he was promised was actually a Potemkin village of sorts, engineered by the minister of civil service, who has supplied the tribe with grain alcohol and red wine in order to put them into a “very excited” state.
“This is what the NGO doesn’t understand—you can have fun in Africa!” Mr. Brügger exclaims as a young boy flops down on the dirt and begins to shake.
The Ambassador is shocking and funny, but it’s not always right. When Mr. Brügger admits that his fake matchbook factory has employed real workers only to “[get] their hopes up,” he is quick to justify his actions. Since the corrupted diplomats are exploiting the residents of C.A.R., and since his quest is to nobly expose this type of tyranny, the audience shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about how his employees, living in one of the lowest per-capita income regions in the world, will survive once they are laid off.
Mr. Brügger’s self-rationalizing undercuts his status as the film’s moral compass. Even more disturbing is the way in which Mr. Brügger focuses the last third of the film on his personal issues regarding his diplomatic status and the diamonds he was promised. That’s when the satire dissolves and becomes something else entirely—an overseas thriller, perhaps? Except these actors aren’t paid. We are never told how Mr. Brügger is able to leave his dangerous gambit behind, and the fate of the blood diamonds remains a mystery. The guilty Dane does, however, make sure to mention that he gave money to a colleague in C.A.R. to build a real matchbook factory.
When we leave Mr. Brügger, he is partying it up in Liberia, after narrowly (or so we assume) escaping C.A.R. with his life. Having obtained status as not a diplomat but a consul—again, we never learn how—he is last seen laughing with Dr. Toga McIntosh, the country’s minister of foreign affairs. Mr. Brügger is quick to point out that a new commissions report suggests a life ban from public office for Dr. McIntosh—as well as for Liberian president Ellen Johnson—for their part in the country’s civil war.
“But who cares?” the now-unreliable Mr. Brügger asks. “Let’s just get on with life as it is.”
Irredeemably flip on the surface, this last line has double-meaning: it’s also a commonly used phrase in Africa—signifying that life goes on, no matter how horrible the situation.
2.5 stars out of 4
Running Time 97 minutes
Written by Maja Jul Larsen
and Mads Brügger
Directed by Mads Brügger
Starring Mads Brügger