3:03 pm Sep. 5, 2012
"To be frank with you, I'm not a very skilled diplomat."
So says Mads Cortzen, a businessman and honorary Liberian consul and ambassador-at-large to the Central African Republic, to a nattily dressed party full of African diplomats and beautiful women at the beginning of the new film, The Ambassador (screening at the IFC Center this week and next).
"I'm bad at protocol, but I'm very good with alcohol, which I hope you will enjoy."
Cortzen is not actually a diplomat at all: he has purchased his position. And he's not even Cortzen, he is Mads Brügger, a Danish journalist and documentary filmmaker who conceived, wrote, directed, and starred in this film to show how white businessmen buy African diplomatic positions for their own corrupt ends.
While some journalistic purists might object to his methods, to making himself the center of his films, Brügger also maintains some very proper, old-school journalistic sensibilities. He normally leaves his ballot unmarked in Danish elections, he told me when we spoke last Thursday on the High Line, to avoid making himself "the mouthpiece" of any one party. And he's thought a lot about why he puts himself in the center of his films.
"I would like to make films another way," he told me. "But I do like the honesty of being in the film instead of being a fly on the wall... Making yourself as visible as you choose, you really put yourself on the line. If the film fails, you are the one they point fingers at."
Early in the documentary, Brügger explains himself with an extremely Werner Herzog-ian voiceover in Teutonic English:
From this point there's no going back. Here ends my life as a Danish journalist. What awaits me is a life where I can operate freely—beyond all moral boundaries known to man—while still being a respectable member of society. A life where I can indulge myself in secret state affairs, enjoy red-carpet treatment, and travel the world with a suitcase full of diamonds. What I'm talking about is, of course, a life as an African diplomat.
Using hidden cameras, Brügger records meetings with brokers for the purchase of the Liberian position, with diplomats and foreign businessmen in the Central African Republic's capital of Bangui, and with various government officials including the C.A.R.'s defense minister and its white mercenary head of security. Most striking of all, though, he records his meetings with a diamond-mine owner who promises access to diamonds not cleared for removal from the country—blood diamonds.
In the hands of another filmmaker, this kind of clandestine account of weighty matters could be as suspenseful as it was self-important. But Brügger, playing like a Sacha Baron Cohen of geopolitical documentary, is far more interested in playing up The Ambassador's absurdity.
When a diplomatic passport broker tells Cortzen/Brügger that he represents a mysterious and powerful gentleman named "Dr. Eastman," Brügger can't help himself.
"I really like the name Dr. Eastman," he says. "It has a spy-thriller ring to it."
To which the middle-aged Dutchman selling him the passport laughs nervously and says, "A spy! Don't think he is a spy," before immediately adding Eastman "is very close" to a spy, that he pulls the strings in both statecraft and the demimonde. There's no real evidence, of course, that Dr. Eastman even exists.
Brügger's cover story in The Ambassador is that he wants to build a match factory in the C.A.R., and as Cortzen he pushes for absurd racist advertising materials and shows an unseemly fascination with pygmies, insisting that he have a pygmy assistant (he gets two.) No one bats an eye.
In person, Brügger is far more self-effacing. Smoking a cigarette on the High Line ("tobacco is the secret star of the film," he says), Brügger declared that "With each interview you make, the self-hatred increases. Talking about yourself and a thing you've done in the past is just nauseating."
The Ambassador is not the first time Brügger has gone undercover, nor the first time he's ingratiated himself to his marks by buying lots of alcohol. Years ago, he wrote "The Clown Wars" for the Danish magazine Blackbox, infiltrating an easier and safer target than rogue regimes: a clown convention. Posing as a Dutch clown, Brügger and a friend gave away forty bottles of vodka. The clowns "proceeded to get drunker than I have ever seen," Brügger related. "The next morning, several had disappeared from the city. The organizer of the convention was very angry with me."
This sort of absurdity is also present in Brügger's last film, the brilliant North Korean documentary Red Chapel. In that film, Brügger takes two young Danish comedians adopted from Korea—one of whom has cerebral palsy—to North Korea to perform. He acquiesces to the North Korean minders' wholesale revisions of the stand-up performances, turning them into glorifications of the North Korean state, in return for his comedians still being allowed to sing "Wonderwall," the '90s Oasis hit.
While Brügger's films may not follow the example of most documentarians, he acknowledges the debt he owes to Herzog, noting that Herzog himself made a documentary about the Central African Republic, Echoes From A Somber Empire. And Brügger admitted some small ambivalence about his betrayal of everyone he included in the film.
"Within the DNA of journalism, there is something repulsive," he said. However, he argued, "ninety-five percent of the people—myself included—in the film are crooks" and that "conventional journalism would get you kicked out of the C.A.R." His approach, he contends, is the only one for the job.
The Ambassador is not a perfect film. The bit about the the pygmies gets stretched and stretched until, like much of Baron Cohen's material, it ends up falling flat. Meanwhile, as he's busy pursuing such gags, some of his targets slip through the net. Varney Sherman, the chair of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's Unity Party (Brügger refers to him in conversation as "the Dick Cheney of Liberia"), helps get Cortzen/Brügger his position in exchange for campaign contributions in cash, but avoids being recorded during his most criminal moments.
It's easy to come away from The Ambassador feeling as if the whole corrupt diplomatic-exchange system is mostly set up to fleece white businessmen with unpleasant motives out of as much money as possible. Not that there is no evildoing going on, but more that Brugger does not capture that much evildoing on film. He does manage to get his hands on some blood diamonds, but it's unclear whether he actually smuggles them out of the country, or even would be capable of doing so. In short, there's a lot of setups, and a few punchlines, but not a whole lot of evidence.
But that may well be beside the point. And The Ambassador is well worth seeing, if only because Brügger is unlike any other director working today. And he's already well into his next film, The Quatraro Mystery, an account of the mysterious death of the Italian E.U. bureaucrat responsible for regulating the continent's tobacco, which will be more than just the secret star of the film this time around.
'The Ambassador' is playing at IFC Center now through September 11.