Think of the real-life documentary-like antics of Sacha Baron Cohen, but far more dangerous, and you’ll have something akin to Mads Brügger’s The Ambassador. Cohen sought to poke American social mores in the ribs a bit with his openly “foreign” characters. Brügger is far more ambitious and, in a way, far more pranksterish. His documentary film seeks to expose the corruption and the vast criminal network tied to international African ambassadors by using an invented character (that Brügger himself plays) to start some legitimately illegal operations in one of the most poverty-stricken places on Earth.
Some setup for you, as this film may introduce a facet of world crime that some of you may not be familiar with. It’s evidently a common practice for white Europeans to seek ambassador status in Africa. Indeed, it’s so common, there are websites devoted to getting you your ambassador papers. You can claim you’re from, say, Liberia, and then go to, say, The Central African Republic, and set up a business there. The business you set up, though, will be a front to launder money for all the diamonds that you intend to openly smuggle out of the country, all under the aegis of diplomatic immunity. This system is so entrenched in Africa that there is a string glad-handing politicians and dangerous, dangerous criminals all waiting to do business with you, and to take their cut from the blood diamonds.
I suppose a straightforward exposé on blood diamonds wouldn’t have been shocking enough. What Brügger does is for more impactful: he shows how easy this lifestyle is by going through the process himself. He decks himself out in the usual diplomatic duds (yes, he wears riding boots, ostentatious jewelry, and even takes to smoking with a long cigarette holder), and proceeds to go through the diplomatic process, intending to smuggle as many diamonds as he can back to his native Denmark. All through the process, as he deals with shady officials and dirty local politicians, he is open about his intentions to smuggle diamonds. He decides to set up a matchstick factory in a remote part of the Central African Republic (run by pygmies, and fully stocked with racist propaganda posters, yuk yuk), openly aware that a factory will never be built, and that he is giving false hope to the locals. How does he feel about that? He is ambivalent. “I know I’m giving these people false hope,” he muses to the camera in a confidential aside, “but other ambassadors do this kind of thing all the time.”
Everyone seems to know what’s going on here, and, after a while, it becomes clear that Brügger’s struggles are caused not by his illegal actions, but his lack of skill in committing these particular illegal actions. It doesn’t take the audience too long to see that Brügger is in real danger, and could easily be killed by any number of crooked criminals. That this film was finally made does, at the very least, reveal that he made it out the other side okay.
The film looks horrible, as it was filmed mostly on hidden cameras. What’s more, I wasn’t able to discern how many of the people Brügger interviewed were knowingly being filmed, and which ones were pretending they didn’t know (would a security chief really speak that frankly about corruption in his own government?). Just like Cohen’s films, you may be curious as to how much of this is real, and how much of it is staged. The ending is also abrupt and non-committal. Brügger, we find, was only able to make it so far. But a post-movie scrawl explaining what exactly happened would have been appropriate.
The Ambassador is ostensibly a comedy, and it indeed is full of incredulous guffaws at the open and expected corruption in this part of the world. But don’t expect to be tickled. This film is making a point.