Gonzo Goes to Africa: Filmmaker/Journalist Mads Brugger Is 'The Ambassador'
By Ron Deutsch
The new Drafthouse Films release The Ambassador tells the story of a foppish Danish gentleman who has quasi-legally purchased a diplomatic position to a barely-functioning central African country under the pretense of opening a match factory run by local Pygmies. But what he is really after is purchasing "blood diamonds," which he can smuggle thanks to his new diplomatic immunity. He pursues this goal while hoping he won't be found out as a fraud and quite possibly killed by either government officials, thieves or his business partners.
While this sounds like the plot of a Hollywood thriller, it is not. It is a documentary—an often deliberately funny and shocking one at that. And the corrupt diplomat isn't just the protagonist; he is also the man making the film—Danish journalist/filmmaker Mads Brügger.
A 15-year veteran of the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, Brügger has produced award-winning radio programs, hosted critically-acclaimed television shows, and is currently head of a new 24-hour talk radio network in Denmark.
Brügger explains he's not merely interested in making films, but in transforming what it means to be a journalist in the 21st century. Some have called what he does "performative" or "radical" journalism, others describe it as "hybrid cinema."
"I don't have an expression for it," Brügger says, "but it is about pushing the envelope. I think it also is that I like to explore and revitalize journalistic genres. If you look at documentaries from afar, many look alike or at least similar. I think that if you are so lucky to get a film fully funded, it is somehow your obligation to make something that doesn't look like the rest of the films."
Early in his career, Brügger discovered a penchant for going undercover for magazine stories. In 2004, he and a colleague went on a road trip across the United States during the presidential election as members of a fictional club—Danes for Bush—which became a three-part television exposé back home. For his first documentary feature, 2009's The Red Chapel, Brügger went to North Korea as manager of a Korean-Danish comedy duo under the pretense of a pro-Communist exchange program. The resulting film depicts the insanity and sadness of what life is like there.
Some reviewers have likened him to Sasha Baron Cohen, or a 21st century Hunter S. Thompson, but Brügger says he differs from Cohen's Borat character in that "there is a lot of journalism in what I'm doing....It's more like 'Borat meets The Economist' or 'Jackass meets National Geographic.'
"But what it comes down to," he continues, "in Denmark we have something called 'cultural radicalism,' which has been an intellectual way of viewing the world, and has been very predominant in Denmark since the 1950s. And part of 'cultural radicalism' is that whenever you have the opportunity to say something funny you should also say something serious, and vice versa.
"I'm not an activist," he clarifies. "Whenever journalists move into activism, it tends to go wrong, so I try to stay away from it.
"If you go back 20 years, journalists were really gatekeepers," Brügger explains. "Being a professional journalist meant you had access to the cable wires, and it was they who chose what is news and what is not news. But all the tools of the trade are now accessible to everybody. If you or somebody else wants to work as a journalist, it is fairly possible for you to do so. So journalists, first of all, have to walk an extra mile to justify being journalists. They have to be more sophisticated and professional in the way they conduct their work, as compared to the billions of bloggers and people who aspire to become journalists. Second of all, it is becoming more and more difficult to function as a journalist in many parts of the world—in Russia, China, many places in Africa, Mexico—so I believe journalists have to find other ways of working in order to make it."
The Ambassador was almost entirely shot with hidden cameras, and with a Canon 5D digital SLR. "Looking like a still camera, it was possible to shoot this undercover," Brügger maintains. "We were happily filming scenes that in theory would be unfilmable," as his subjects were unaware that the camera could and was shooting video.
"One of the advantages of being in front of the camera, it in some ways makes you able to direct the film without directing it. I would have a sense of where something was going and what kind of situation we were in. And then there's the advantage of speaking a language which only five million speak—Danish—so I was able to give the photographer cues in Danish.
"What we really worked a lot upon was having good sound," he says pointedly. "You can accept bad pictures, but sound is really a no go. So we were really working on hiding microphones in my consulate, and I had several on me while about in Bangui [the capital city of the Central African Republic]."
Both the idea for the film and the film itself begin with Brügger entering the murky world of diplomatic title brokers. If you search the Internet, Brügger notes, you will find websites offering such things. "I thought initially if this is really possible that you can purchase a diplomatic title that it would be a terrific starting point for a documentary, as this would bring me beyond role-playing. I would not be playing a diplomat; I would actually be a diplomat, which makes things much more interesting. And it would also grant me access to people and places that would be totally sealed off for journalists and documentarians in general. If this is really possible, I thought, this could be a very interesting film.
"During this process, I met with a famous Danish-African journalist, and I told him about my idea. I asked him, 'Where would you go if you had bought a diplomatic title? Where would you want to be positioned in Africa?' And he immediately said, 'The Central African Republic.' I said, 'Excuse me?' because I hadn't heard about the place. Most people don't know the CAR. It's the most forgotten country in Africa. But the more I began reading about the place, the more knowledge I acquired about the history and the situation there, the more intrigued and convinced I became that this is the place where the film should be done."
According to the US State Department website, the CAR "is one of the world's least developed nations, and has experienced several periods of political instability since independence [in 1960].... Significant portions of the country's territory remain uncontrolled and ungoverned, with the presence of multiple armed actors creating insecurity in much of the north and northeast." It is also rich in natural resources.
Brügger pitched his idea to the head of the Danish Film Institute, who was sensibly very skeptical. "First of all, he didn't believe it was actually possible to purchase a diplomatic title, and furthermore he said, 'If you go to the Central African Republic, they will have you for breakfast. You won't in any way perform as something even remotely resembling a diplomat in that arena. You will be toast.' And I said, Why not just send me there for a week and see what happens? He agreed and funded me to go for research."
So, Brügger went on an exploratory trip to the CAR in 2008, "to get a feeling of the territory and some sort of sense of where the glass ceiling was—but of course, there isn't any. The only reality principle in the Central African Republic is that there is no reality principle. Without actively wanting to do so, I almost ending up making the film then. Within those seven days in Bangui, I was meeting with the Minister of Mines just because of the way I was dressing, behaving, and that I was signifying that I had money and connections and so on. So I thought, If this is possible with just a fake business card saying I was a consultant to the government of Vanuatu, the Pacific Island state, what would happen if I move in for real? And this is how it developed.
"This buying of diplomatic positions is a gray area," he explains. "As such, it is not illegal for a country to sell a diplomatic title to somebody. A country is perfectly free to appoint whomever they want to appoint as their trade attaché, ambassador or general consul, provided that person is not a wanted criminal. In theory it is legal, but where it becomes a tricky business is that why would somebody want to become a general consul in the Central African Republic? If it's because they want to do good, why not join the NGOs [non-governmental agencies]?
"Through my work as a journalist, when I have traveled to places far away from Denmark, from time to time I have met diplomats in diplomat clubs in Islamabad and so on, and it occurred to me that they were really weird guys. In many ways they were diplomats gone bad. If you are sent as a diplomat to the Central African Republic, that is like the ultimate punishment. It is because you have somehow messed up. So you would have a country with a diplomatic corps, which is made up of really weird, deviant people. But what I like about diplomats is that there are many similarities between diplomats and journalists. In many ways, they have do the same thing—gather intelligence, network, meet with people and find out about what's going on behind the scenes. But where they differ from journalists is that diplomats are sort of augmented, like super-journalists, because they have access to all the sources journalists would kill to have access to. They walk about the hallways of power, meet and mingle with people who are really in the know, and they told things that are really confidential. And all the time they are respected, they are trusted and they are protected. They enjoy a level of protection that journalists in Third World countries absolutely do not enjoy.
"When I went to go see about the title, I was told that my background and my résumé was being screened by the National Security Agency of Liberia. But what is the NSA of Liberia? It's possibly a guy with a 20-year old PC sitting at a desk by himself--if there even is an NSA of Liberia. You have to understand that once you acquire this type of title, there comes a lot of privileges and protection, which is very useful if you want to involve yourself in crime. Liberia has issued at least 2,000 of such diplomatic titles, and probably more. There are a lot of instances of people holding African diplomatic passports and positions being involved in crime. If you buy a diplomatic or consular title, you will, of course, not tell anyone that you bought it, so it is difficult to say someone bought such a title and then went and smuggled blood diamonds. It is a netherworld and much of it is off the radar."
At one point in the film, during a meeting with one of these brokers, the broker says to Brügger, "'Now we're going outside [to talk privately] and I want you take off your blazer jacket.' But I couldn't do that because it would have made the wire visible. So just out of pure desperation, I started fondling my cell phone, which made him say I also had to leave my cell phone there. So he then forgot about the blazer jacket. But if he had found the microphone and the pinhole camera on me, it would have clearly turned very nasty, I think."
Eventually, he does get his diplomatic credential and heads to the Central African Republic looking to buy so-called "blood" or "conflict diamonds."
"The diamonds are like a MacGuffin" in the film," Brügger says, "in the sense that people are very fascinated and intrigued by diamonds and it triggers the fantasy and imagination of people. But also, whenever you go down the path of getting diamonds in Africa, with that venture comes a lot of interesting characters. For me, the much more important aspect of the film and much more important character is the former head of state security in the CAR. By naming him, I also mean all the other people I met being there—which is, for me, much more interesting than just wanting to get diamonds."
Brügger purposely did not use African or world music in the film, which he says "is an instant turn-off for me in such films." Instead, he used Western music, which he feels works as commentary on the absurdity of the situation.
"Especially the last song, 'Istanbul, Not Constantinople,' is in many ways the essence of the film," he explains. "Once it was called Constantinople and now they call it Istanbul and there's nothing to do about that. It's a song about nostalgia, a longing for something that isn't there anymore, which is what Westerners have to realize about Africa. What I see is the descent of the white man in Africa and the rise of the Chinese. The brand new headquarters of the African Union is paid for by the Chinese, for instance. They are really a force on the rise there and will define what happens there in many ways. It's a much more cynical and result-oriented kind of colonialism than the old European brand. Once there is no coal in the mine, no manganese or cobalt to be found, they will pull out immediately. They don't care about African culture. They don't care about educating people. They don't care about bringing civilization to Africa. It's not on their agenda. It is pure business and pure exploitation—which for some Africans, I suppose, is much more easy and simple to deal with, which is also why you can argue that 50 years of foreign aid from the West to Africa has been completely pointless. The only thing that has really mattered in Africa is cell phones and the Chinese. There is a truth in that.
"For me the film is a lesson in what happens when corruption defines all social relations in a country and how utterly fragile and exposed such a country becomes to people who are 'bad-will' ambassadors," he continues. "I do hope that it clearly tells about how easy it is for a person such as Mr. Cortzen [the name he uses in the film] to totally rape a country such as the CAR within weeks, basically. So if you look at how easy it was for me to gain access to people of power in the CAR, to wheel and deal with the kingpins and the shakers and movers of that country, you have to ask yourself what will happen when the 'real' Mr. Cortzen comes to town--if he's not there already. And they are."
Brügger is currently completing his next project, a more straight-forward documentary about Antonio Quatraro, an Italian EU official who either jumped or was pushed out of a window just before having to go to court over corruption charges in 1993.
The Ambassador is available on VOD now through Drafthouse Films and opens August 29 in New York and August 31 in Los Angeles.
Ron Deutsch recently co-wrote the documentary OK, Buckaroos!, on the life of singer Jerry Jeff Walker. Interviews he did with shlockmeisters Herschell Gordon Lewis and David Friedman in 1980 were released for the first time as extras on the American Grindhouse DVD last July. He also teaches cooking classes in Austin, Texas, and writes for The Criterion Collection as Chef du Cinema, pairing films and food.