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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  • Fred Carl

    The whole thing is a fake. There is a huge difference between the gifting culture in africa. ($1 – $100) and bribery. i.e. Big amounts.

    He tries to make a fool of the audience.

    Diamonds can be bought in CAR legitimately with KCP paperwork. You don’t need to smuggle them, there is no embargo on CAR diamonds.

    This man is a cheat who also broke Danish law if he was actually bribing foriegn officials like he claims.

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  • Atrebla

    As a documentary enthusiast, we often like to think we are doing amazing work making or watching docs that have the top statistics and talking heads – or engaging the ‘chicken little’ syndrome. This film is a deep sociological study, mixed with humor, suspense, and the amazing access to places no conventional documentary could go. If one does understand this film, then I would blame his or her lack of knowledge about imperialism, colonialism, race, and hegemony more than the director. That was an AMAZING portrayal of ‘corruption’ in the CAR, and other countries in Africa. It shows us that such corruption was TAUGHT by the colonial countries, and that they and their own citizens have a huge part in promulgating this corruption we so often blame only black Africans for. The director was daring, smart, and brilliant in his ability to pull of all of the things he did to get access to the people he did – while putting his life on the line. What would I change? I would include that he immediately sold all blood diamonds to a local diamond buyer, and gave the money to the Pygmie community to open the match factory. I would include that Tjissen (the consulate broker in Portugal) worked hard to stop the showing of the film, and is still threatening with a lawsuit.

    • Empyrio

      …and I predict that within 48 hours from now the Zentropha leader at YouTube will be changed or will disappear from the site.

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  • Phyllis

    I was really blown away by this film. I think the filmmaker was just as dishonest as the African people he was trying to expose. People were trusting him and believing in him and he was deceiving them throughout the film. The Pygmies were trusting him to help them start a match factory and he knew no factory would ever be started. I would go as far as to say he is a psychopath, not caring about the people in the film. He tells us afterwards that he gave his diamond money to the Pygmies but honestly that is hard for me to believe. If someone from a developed first world country is going to go work in Africa, he should not be adding to their problems but should be helping them have a better life. He is WORSE than the colonialists.

    • Empyrio

      You are damn right. The man is a real psychopath, not only that but also he feels himself superior to the illiterate Africans and starts citing intellectual crap to impress them with Hitler’s favorite Champaign and ridiculous orations. Of course many snobs and neo Nazis love this kind of rhetoric and adore the new God of satire who leaves big marks in the trust of poor people.

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  • Empyrio

    Brugger is a pretentious arrogant bribery agitator who should be arrested and sentenced for intentionally paying money to incite people bribing government official in Third World Countries. According to the Danish law (Criminal Code 21) an offense of bribery is complete when a bribe is promised or offered, regardless of whether the bribe is accepted or received by the public official. According to section 93 the statute of limitations for bribery of foreign public officials is five years for an individual, whereas it is two years for a legal person. Brugger falsely accuses others of bribery but for his own glory he incites people to do so enabling him to produce a documentary with public fund and sell it for big money. Isn’t this an Act of Crime or has the world changed in Denmark when Danish citizen publicly ridicules and insults the Africans. The Danish government has butter at its head and does not do anything to stop this lunatic. The coward filmed with hidden cameras and taped confidential conversations and now he is too chicken to collect his diplomatic credentials. What a big fake.

  • Empyrio

    Documentary films are expected to be nonfiction. After knowing the full facts behind Mads Brügger’s THE AMBASSADOR it is clear that this documentary film is fiction, falsely presented as nonfiction in which the maker unveils himself as an unscrupulous egocentric forger with the sole intention to purposely damage the interest of individuals and governments for his own glory. Worse, it has been partly financed with blood diamonds Brügger bought and sold in the Central Africa Republic. Brügger supplied funds for a diamond mine that employs children and willingly bribed Central African Republic politicians with envelopes full cash (named “envelopes of happiness”). Along the way his film also raises more than a few question around the ethics and morality about his type of undercover guerilla documentary making with hidden cameras. Mads Brügger goes way over the line. The film feels like Brügger’s wet dream of going into a novel by Graham Greene and playing the main character himself. He purposefully takes several steps beyond the rules, both written and unwritten. The Ambassador isn’t honorable reporting. It’s morally reprehensible, deceitful even. The Ambassador is an intellectual hoax to mislead its viewers and insults several highly respected individuals, Africa as continent, and governments. The way narcissist Brügger ridicules the TWA (Pygmy) people of Central African Republic is disgusting with misplaced fascistic superiority when he mugs up an entire village with alcohol, including the children. With the production and release of The Ambassador Brügger proves he does not understand Africa nor the scope and consequences of his action as an officially appointed diplomat for Liberia. Brügger falsely accuses the Liberian Government and consultants of bribery and corruption. Neither the Government of Liberia nor its employees nor any external consultants have ever received or been paid any bribery for corruption, nor have they sold diplomatic passports or honorary positions; neither to respected citizens and most certainly not to criminal individuals as Brügger implies in his documentary, although Brügger is revealing himself in The Ambassador as a regretless lying psychopath with the intention of using a diplomatic position to commit crime.

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