Mads Brügger, The Ambassador
Two years ago, Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger received heaps of praise and a certain level of notoriety for his North Korea documentary, The Red Chapel, a surreally funny glimpse at the repressive routinization of daily life inside the hermit kingdom that won the Grand Jury Prize for international documentary at Sundance. To some, the controversial film was merely a highwire stunt: Brügger managed to gain entrance to the totalitarian state (along with two gagmen, one a self-described “spastic”) by posing as a communist theater director attempting to mount a comedy in the interest of cultural exchange. The disadvantages of his unique position on the inside grow from slight irritation at being continually shadowed by his nosy minder, Mrs. Pak, to near total abasement at an anti-American rally. Brügger, a well-known journalist and radio personality in Denmark, certainly has a knack for satirical role-playing. In 2004, during the U.S. presidential campaign, he traveled the States posing as a foreign supporter of George W. Bush intent on convincing average Americans to vote for the Republican candidate. The resulting series, Danes for Bush, ran on Danish television right around the time The Yes Men were first making a name for themselves as political pranksters.
Based on a gutsier and even more extravagant premise, The Ambassador takes Brügger’s model of comedy-as-critique one step further, as he sets out to expose Western complicity in the illicit trade of blood diamonds within a frail, highly unstable African nation. Posing as a well-to-do diplomatic wannabe, Mr. Cortzen, Brügger arranges to purchase credentials from a shady Dutch broker (who advertises on the Internet, naturally) that entitle him to a position within the Central African Republic, ostensibly as a Liberian representative. (Over 2,500 such diplomatic passports from Liberia were sold in the 1990s.) Employing a variety of ruses from simple letters of introduction to “envelopes of happiness” (i.e. bribes) and outrageously colonialist sartorial guises (finely tailored suits, riding boots, a ubiquitous cigarette holder), Brügger manages to gull most of the local elites into believing he intends to set up a match factory using Pygmies as the indigenous labor force. Most of his high-level contacts, like Minister of Mines Dalkia Gilbert, understand this would be a cover for Cortzen’s real business agenda: acquiring diamonds that he can, as a person with diplomatic immunity, legally transport out of the country, along with millions in cash.
As hidden-camera set-ups capture his conversations with various parties—other diplomats, the French head of state security, even the son of President François Bozizé—Brügger exposes a level of greed and chronic corruption that’s dumbfounding to witness and sadly endemic to the region. Of course, everything does not go according to plan, and Brügger’s double level of exposure, as a filmmaker-in-disguise and as a quasi-legal diplomat whose activities make him a prime target for thieves and edgy, perhaps duplicitous officials, pitches the entire film into low-intensity suspense mode. Brügger’s humor is droll and heavily ironic scene to scene, but his incisive voiceovers always indicate what’s at stake, politically and otherwise, as ever more absurd circumstances develop around him. Ultimately, The Ambassador is an eccentric doc with a comedic bite, depicting with unblinking verity how such conflict-prone, seemingly faraway places as the CAR are never too disconnected from our own centers of power and influence.
Filmmaker spoke with Brügger about the dark side of postcolonial Africa, journalism as performance, and the perils of go-for-broke filmmaking. Drafthouse Films opens The Ambassador today at the IFC Center.
Filmmaker: The Ambassador positions the Central African Republic as a representative entity of the postcolonial world, where all manner of deprivations combine with a kind of officially sanctioned looting.
Brügger: I was interested in a very extreme kind of Africa. And I fully recognize there are places going really well [on the continent]. It is a great many things. But the Central African Republic [CAR], for me, is utterly fascinating and mystifying. It almost borders on fiction. Several diplomats there don’t believe the country will exist in 15 or 20 years. They are barely able to uphold their own sovereignty, and the regime itself has collapsed—it’s a criminal racket. Furthermore, they are dealing with being the most unknown, the most forgotten country in Africa. It’s like a petri dish where all the worst ailments and problems of Africa are combined into one. If you want to deal with the dark side of Africa today, the Central African Republic is the place to go. You know, a diplomat told me a fascinating story: When Aristide was ousted from Haiti, the Americans and the French made a deal that he was to be taken to the CAR. The U.S. pilot who was on the runway in Port-au-Prince, when he was told to fly to [capital city] Bangui, had to call the State Department and ask them, “Is there a really place called the Central African Republic?”
Filmmaker: Certainly France and China have not forgotten the country. Power brokers are very interested in the republic because it’s rich in natural resources that are easily exploited.
Brügger: Yes. Speaking of France, as they say, “a language is a dialect with an army.” That really makes sense there. In many parts of Africa, you can still change the course of history with 400 soldiers, especially in the CAR. With maybe 100 foreign legionnaires you could easily obliterate the Central African armed forces. And France has a permanent group of legionnaires there. Supposedly they’re there to protect the republic and so on, but you know, they are in many ways in control, because nobody really cares about the place or knows what goes on there. The whole system of corruption that ties together the former French African colonies and Paris very much still exists today. They call it la France à fric [a twist on the more widely used Françafrique] with fric also being a slang term for “cash.” Sarkozy promised to deal with it, but in his last year it was exposed in the French media that hardtop cases stuffed with dollars and euros from African heads of state [were flowing] to the Palais de l’Élysées in Paris. The regimes are tied together.
Filmmaker: Before approaching the two diplomatic brokers, Colin Evans and Willem Tijssen, who eventually gave you credentials, you had to somehow convince the Danish Film Institute that this was not a fool’s errand and that you weren’t going to end up in a body bag somewhere. How did that play out?
Brügger: Because of The Red Chapel, and other things I’ve done in Denmark, they knew I was able to [handle] extreme role-playing. But the DFI consultant, who is actually an anthropologist himself who has traveled extensively throughout Africa—he is furthermore the son of a Danish diplomat—has a lot of faith in diplomacy and the integrity of diplomats. [Smiles] Danish diplomats, you know, are perfectly decent. And he said, “Whether or not you are a diplomat, you will not last an hour in the CAR. They will have you for breakfast.” So I suggested that he fund me going there just for a week, in a suit, with some business cards, just to see whether I would be able to meet anybody, or if they would they talk to me. I went in 2008 and almost involuntarily began making the film. At that point, I was in line to become a trade attaché for Vanuatu, the Pacific Island state. Being a dapper dresser and having these cards and throwing a bit of money around, in a week I was meeting with the Minister of Mines and others [close to the president]. When I came home to show the consultant [my progress], he had to acknowledge that this is definitely working.
Filmmaker: Was anyone you met there ruffled by the anarchic state of affairs in the country?
Brügger: I remember staying at the hotel at Bangui in 2008. A couple floors below me was a guy working for Prince Bandar from Saudi Arabia—he’s a friend of the Bush family and was an ambassador for the Saudis in the States. His job was to roam around third world countries looking for places to invest for Prince Bandar. He had traveled all over Africa, but he was in shock: “I have never been in such a hellish, nightmarish place as this,” he told me. He was falling apart.
Filmmaker: Obviously, you found yourself in some hairy situations. Your Danish assistant Maria loses her cool at one critical point. At what moment were you most freaked out yourself?
Brügger: One night we were stopped by a military police patrol who thought we were mercenaries. We were taken to this very scary building—imagine an African Frankenstein aesthetic, if that exists. We were interrogated by a very aggressive officer-in-charge who was on drugs. His eyes were popping out of his head. They were discussing transferring us to the central prison in Bangui, which if you enter there, you will not come out a fully functioning human being. Lucky for me, a lot of these situations weren’t as hairy for me because I’m not Francophone. I was more into the fact that the officer’s radio was playing “Barbie Girl” by [Danish-Norwegian dance-pop group] Aqua. [Deadpan pause]
Filmmaker: [Laughs] Oh, Jesus.
Brügger: In any case, we had one of the ministers on speed dial and he sorted things out for us. We were finally released.
Filmmaker: You’re occupying this space in the doc world where you are simultaneously assuming the role of a journalist—your regular profession—and a role-playing filmmaker. What do you think is the legitimate meeting ground for journalism, documentary filmmaking, and a specialized form of mass entertainment, which is what the role playing is geared toward?
Brügger: That’s a really tricky business—and I certainly don’t advocate for a world where all journalists would be doing this. That wouldn’t be a nice place to live. We still need conventional journalism—and most of what I am doing is fairly conventional. But there are places in the world, like Mexico, Russia, China, parts of Africa, and so on, where journalists can no longer function and operate normally. The profession itself is under tremendous pressure because all the tools of the trade are fully available now to everybody. If journalism is to evolve, it has to become more sophisticated. Journalists have to walk an extra mile. But most don’t have the time to do so. Documentarians work in much longer time spans—two or three years, which I would say makes them able to employ more advanced ways of telling stories, working with narrative. But there are problems in it, because you are mixing fact and fiction.
Filmmaker: Do you find yourself leaning more toward one or the other?
Brügger: In Denmark, I am known as a journalist, so I have to answer to the film as a journalist. Whereas a documentary maker who has a background at the Danish film school doesn’t necessarily have to defend journalistic dos and don’ts. There’s just been a debate at home over Varney Sherman, the corporate lawyer in Liberia who’s chairing the Unity party. He is very angry now [about The Ambassador] and claims to be an innocent lobbyist. He says the $35,000 that I gave him to be recommended as a consul for Liberia and massaged through the system was in the end given back by him. Which is true, but the funds were channeled from him to somebody close to the minister of foreign affairs. For a Danish journalist, the angle could be that Sherman received some money and then simply gave it back. What’s the problem?
Filmmaker: It’s more complicated than that.
Brügger: Yes. For me it is important that the journalism in the film is fully researched and fact-checked. I do understand, though, if some people say [my doc/performance style] is mixing oil and vinegar.
Filmmaker: I find it fertile for documentary to enter that creative territory. You can certainly adopt a journalistic style of factual storytelling that’s dry and oriented mostly for television. But no one will watch a documentary like that on the Central African Republic and be invested.
Brügger: Exactly! If I was to stop a person in the street, saying as a pitch, “Would you like to see a documentary on the Central African Republic?” Most people would say, “Can I take a raincheck?” But if I said, “Would you like to see a documentary about a really white guy who goes to Africa and becomes a diplomat involving himself heavily in diamond mining, exposing corruption and neocolonialism in the upper echelons of a failed African state?” Most people would say, “Now we’re talking business.” I am certain that with many of the interviewees I had—the ones who weren’t aware they were being filmed and recorded—they were interested in me because of mirror neurons. That I was dressing as I did and clearly signifying what fantasies I was embodying, I attracted people who were subscribing to the same fantasies and dreams and desires, which explains why the gallery of characters in the film is so bizarre. By being a character playing a role, I brought into the film persons who would not normally, under any circumstances, deal with a journalist.
Filmmaker: An overemphasis on performance could have tipped The Ambassador in the other direction and made it too much like Borat, in the sense that somebody might see the film as a gonzo stunt. In presenting the absurdity of this environment, which is structured by historical and cultural circumstances and very complex webs of power you tease out, you’re actually attempting to say something quite serious.
Brügger: I do believe people will get an understanding of how fragile these state structures are because they are so dysfunctional and infested with corruption, fully ready for a character like Mr. Cortzen to enter and rape the entire country within weeks, basically. What will happen when the real Mr. Cortzen comes to town? Because I’m quite certain he does exist. The most important character in the film for me is the head of state security, Guy-Jean Le Foll Yamandé, because he is saying what a typical NGO or scholar in African studies from the Sorbonne would say. But it is coming from him, which is more credible—and frightening.
Filmmaker: How would you characterize his thinking and alignment, exactly?
Brügger: He was an intellectual. He had gone to the “war university” in France—that’s what he called it—and he would lecture me about the geopolitical aspects of the Central African Republic. But he had definitely teamed up with the dark side. As such, he’s the ultimate French nightmare—one of their own monsters going against them.
Filmmaker: Yamandé was stripped of his French passport at some point, wasn’t he?
Brügger: He had been indicted for mercenary activities. But he knew about all the things France does not wish people in the West to know. Although I’m sure he had been involved in horrible atrocities, in a strange way, there was an almost humanistic side to him. I was told by some diplomats through email that maybe the reason he was assassinated is that he had been involved in a state coup himself.
Filmmaker: That’s what the ruling elite fear. A coup.
Brügger: President Bozizé lives in constant paranoia. So does everybody with power in Bangui. That’s what happens on the end line of corruption, it’s a place where everybody lives in fear.
Filmmaker: What did your diplomatic colleagues think once they realized—even though you had legitimate credentials—that you were also a filmmaker with an agenda.
Brügger: I have been in contact with a European diplomat in Bangui who knows about who I really am. He arranged a screening of the film at the American embassy. According to him, they really enjoyed the film and thought it was spot on. [Drily] So some people are happy with my work as a diplomat there.
Filmmaker: Your sense of humor is palpable, and very peculiar. There’s one scene where you play whale music for your Pygmy assistants. Where did that impulse come from?
Brügger: At that point, I was not a coherent human being. Me and the Pygmies really are worlds apart. We don’t have any common meeting ground. But I thought we can talk about something we all have concepts and shared references for, which is the animal kingdom. While I was talking about the beasts of the jungle with Bernard and Albert, I discovered that they had never heard about whales. [My translator] Paul told me they had no knowledge of them. So I thought, let’s introduce to them to the singing of humpback whales.
Filmmaker: They look positively baffled.
Brügger: Totally. I like this scene because there’s a lot of comedy in it, but also pain and some poetry. I tried to take the scene away at several points, but I was really missing it.
Filmmaker: The time-worn American music in The Ambassador was truly a counterintuitive element. It lends an oddly nostalgic cast to the back-room wheelings and dealings you’re documenting.
Brügger: I wanted the film to deviate as much as possible from the generic Africa documentary. That meant there could not be any kind of world music in the film. For me, that kind of ’30s, ’40s American music—the Ink Spots, Woody Guthrie, the American songwriter folk music period—is for me strangely related to Africa. And the song by the Four Lads, “Istanbul, Not Constantinople,” is in many ways what the entire film is about. There is a lot of nostalgia in the film—there’s a longing for an Africa that no longer exists. That’s why all the white men in the film, myself included, are such cartoonish characters. We can’t go back to Constantinople because they’ve changed the place—it doesn’t exist anymore.