Sundance 2012: THE AMBASSADOR Review

     January 20, 2012

Documentaries are not objective.  They are always presenting a truth in a certain light and in a way we’re being conned into viewing the world under the guise of objectivity.  “It’s out of my control!” says the documentary filmmaker. “Even I don’t know what will happen next!”  Mads Brügger’s gonzo documentary The Ambassador is a film where everyone is conning everyone and the audience may be the biggest mark.  Brügger puts himself into the position of a criminal in order to expose criminal activity, but we’re left to wonder how much he’s staged.  For some documentaries, that may be unimportant and simply a narrative device to prove a larger point.  But for The Ambassador, the film turns on whether or not we’re being played.  If we aren’t, then the movie is a stunning expose on a vast web of corruption.  But if we are being conned, then the film is a stunning piece of exploitation on a global scale done for the sake of Brügger’s ego rather than journalism.  And if the truth lies somewhere in between, isn’t it based on a lie?

When we think about diplomats, we think of government employees who serve as liaisons between nations in an attempt to create a mutually beneficial relationship (we may also think of the villain from Lethal Weapon 2).  But there are also business diplomats who go between countries not to serve political interests, but to create a specific business arrangement.  This profession has allowed nefarious individuals to purchase diplomatic credentials, set up front companies in Africa, and then steal the country’s valuable natural resources.  Brügger decides to become one of these fake diplomats and begins a journey to swindle the people of Bangui out of their diamonds.  He sets up hidden cameras to interview other consuls and to document his shady business dealings, but other times he has a cameraman by his side.  The director thinks he has the upper hand since he’s the one with the fake identity and the cameras, but eventually Brügger understands that he may be an amateur when it comes to this con game.

However, Brügger may be conning us.  The writer-director clearly relishes the attempt to play the part of a shady diplomat.  He struts around in tailored suits and leather boots with dark sunglasses so he can look cool and mysterious.  It’s theatrical, but there’s nothing sentimental in the film’s presentation.  Brügger makes no comment on the deep-rooted corruption that has a stranglehold on African nations, and he knows we’ll be dumbstruck by all the players, ranging as high as the French and Chinese government all the way down to the shady diamond mine owner with whom he’s fostering a business relationship.   To be fair (or at least keep the illusion of objectivity), Brügger makes no excuses for his own actions and freely admits that the fake company he’s setting up will never come to fruition and Africans desperate to work there are wasting their time.

So what is his goal?  It depends on what you think Brügger aims to accomplish.  If it’s a call to action, then even The Ambassador admits it would be a fruitless endeavor.  There are simply too many people who are dependent on this corrupt system.  And where do you even begin? At best, the documentary might put a stop to the phony diplomats streaming into Africa, but it’s doubtful.  If anything, Brügger’s initial hypothesis on the ease of getting a consulship is undone by the shocking revelation that people who can provide phony credentials may not be trustworthy folks.

If the film’s larger focus isn’t the obvious point of “The first-world exploits the third-world”, it could easily be about how people con each other.  While Brügger is a schemer and almost everyone around him is playing an angle, the film itself could be a con.  It’s bold that he’s willing to go so far as to adopt a fake identity, but where is he getting all his financing?  His bribes to the diamond mine owner alone total almost $30,000 US.  More bizarre is the presence of his camera man.  We can believe that Brügger can invite people to his hotel room where he’s set up multiple hidden cameras, but how did he convince his contacts in Africa to talk freely about their criminal activities on camera?  This isn’t one of the hidden cameras that Brügger supposedly smuggles in to his interviews with diplomatic credential brokers.  This is a camera everyone can see.  We have to believe that the people he’s talking to are either too stupid to understand the ramifications of being taped, or that they’re too corrupt to care.  Futhermore, no one ever brings up why a diplomat would need to have a cameraman with him in the first place.

Brügger’s ability to get unguarded interviews on this level leads to bizarre revelations and further raises the suspicion that he is simply using a very real problem to simply glorify his own ego.  More unsettling is just how damn well he does it.  The Ambassador is a highly entertaining movie.  It’s disturbing, intriguing, and darkly comic.  For all the effort Brügger puts into researching this corrupt world, he’s even more interested in playing his cover to full effect.  For example, he mentions that Africans believe in superstition and that the Pygmies have “the best wizards,” and that he should hire a pygmy to better sell his fake product.  But Brügger’s investment in his con starts to fall apart as more aspects begin to go awry and he “discovers” that he may be the mark.

Ironically, there are times when Brügger’s attempt to con us bounces back on himself. When things start to go south for the fake diplomat, the audience wonders why he doesn’t simply cut his losses.  After all, he’s a documentary filmmaker.  He just plays a corrupt diplomat on TV.  Why should he risk his life when he’s surrounded by people who would happily slit his throat?  If he doesn’t actually have any skin in the game, should we be worried about whether or not he’s going to save his own skin?  There’s also a point midway through the film when Brügger is about to have an important meeting with the Minister of Defense, but then he rewinds almost all the way back to the beginning of his tale like he forgot to tell us the important part.  It’s an odd step for such a confident, unapologetic storyteller.

Documentaries need to have some level of objective truth, which is to say that it can’t be complete fiction from start to finish.  Someone has to be a real person who isn’t in on the gag.  What makes The Ambassador both fascinating and frustrating is that the film may be a con for the sake of being a con, and Brügger simply found a good one by stumbling upon the corrupt world of business diplomacy.  We’re left to wonder if Brügger’s score is exposing a “the appendix to the Congo’s Heart of Darkness”, or if it’s creating a monument to the guile and ingenuity of Mads Brügger.

Rating: B

For all of our coverage of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far:

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