Power, Corruption and Laughs. This was Danish director/protagonist Mads Brugger’s route through the failed state chaos that reigns in the Central African Republic in his documentary satire The Ambassador, premiering in the UK at Edinburgh International Film Festival this week. Tackling deadly serious subjects that involve diplomatic immunity, old colonial interference and blood diamonds dredges up images of dry investigative journalism. Brugger, instead, enters terrain that feels like the hard-boiled world of a noirish thriller but does so with arch irony as the means of keeping his audience on board his extreme and potentially calamitous journey into central Africa’s shady ‘business’ domain.
"less the territory of doc and more that of a Michael Mann thriller where an opaque network of men and meetings dance delicately and smilingly around ‘envelopes of happiness’"
Brugger adopts and acts the persona of international businessman, Mr. Cortzen, buying a Liberian diplomatic passport and throwing money before him as the means to grease his way to contacts, meetings and opportunities that are closed to him without his ‘diplomatic’ status. (Where did he get all that money to so convincingly play his part?) And this status can lead him to the ultimate prize – the ability to take diamonds illegally out of CAR. This netherworld of fraudulent old-world diplomacy and glad-handing African ministers does what a good doc should: it allows us to understand the culture of a place, a situation - especially those only ever news worthy through atrocity or disaster. It is illuminating in shining a light on the twilight dealings only ever reaching our ears in the form of failed coups and imprisoned mercenaries. It is a world of characters and situations so extreme, it almost seems beyond parody.
Brugger’s odyssey is less the territory of doc and more that of a Michael Mann thriller where an opaque network of men and meetings dance delicately and smilingly around ‘envelopes of happiness’ and crazy contractual clauses. These are the paths trodden of Mark Thatcher and Simon Mann, or ex-French Legionnaires and ex-security men who will broker you diplomatic status and ergo the capacity to get over borders with bags full of unchecked diamonds. Brugger paddles through some pretty hot water and his cojones can only be admired when one considers that the wrong step in the merry dance could, as he is warned, have him found dead in a ditch.
Brugger succeeds for the most part in maintaining the wry tone that exposes the bungs, ad hoc legalities and trenchant opportunism that are the day-to-day realities of this African country. However, it oversteps satire in fusing his character’s neo-colonialism/racism and the discrimination of fellow Africans in relation to CAR’s Pygmy tribespeople. Brugger’s impostor-diplomat may be in character dancing piss-takingly with drunk Pygmies - and who knows if this is the behaviour these diplomat-businessmen generally display - but without first hand contribution from these peoples who take the brunt of this disastrous world and are the butt of Brugger’s scams, it makes for queasy viewing, adding another layer of exploitation to what they have already sustained in this violent land.
Brugger’s film isn’t flawless and his mission doesn’t get him the grand coup de commerce he may have been after, but it gets the viewer an extraordinary and satisfying insight into a world that few of us would dare go near. This is no fantasy of dodgy geezers and lurking murder. This is the real deal. Or at least the real deal achieved via documentary deception and con.