Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger’s The Ambassador (read my review here) opened on VOD everywhere and began a limited theatrical run last week. Brügger first became known outside of Denmark in 2009, with his documentary The Red Chapel, which detailed Brügger’s bizarre journey to North Korea with two adopted, Danish-Korean comedians, one with cerebral palsy, where they were to put on a comedy show, all while under the strict supervision of the North Korean state. Their ace in the hole was that North Koreans aren’t especially fluent in Danish, and especially not palsied Danish. It was at turns wildly tragicomic and uncomfortable to watch, with the North Korean advisor/translator fawning and trying desperately to appear sympathetic to the disabled, all while it was becoming increasingly clear that other North Koreans had never even seen a disabled person before, which spoke volumes about how the regime deals with its disabled citizens.
Brügger’s second documentary feature, The Ambassador follows his quest to become an African diplomat, ostensibly to expose government corruption in Africa, a quest which first brings him into contact with a pair of shady fellows who sell such titles, one a crew-cut Brit named Colin Evans, the other a rumpled Belgian with a silly mustache named Willem Tijssen. From there Brügger travels first to Liberia, then to the Central African Republic, a “failed state only if one is to believe it was ever a functioning state to begin with.” Brügger, who for the film creates a slightly Sacha Cohen-esque character named “Mr. Cortzen,” a colonialist dandy in long riding boots who smokes cigarettes out of holders like Hunter Thompson, earned points for boldness from all critics, creating a rare view of Africa from the corrupt top down in a real-life heart of darkness. Or, as Brügger describes it, “a place where the principles of causality don’t apply.”
As far as I’ve read, the two biggest knocks on The Ambassador are the lack of a clear goal (“what was he trying to do, anyway?”) and an insensitivity to the natives. A reviewer for Salon went so far as to call Brügger a bastard, writing, “If Brügger’s intentions are in many senses laudable – exposing the epic and corrosive corruption that surrounds the African diamond trade, and for that matter almost everything else about the governance and society of that continent – there’s an unmistakably malicious edge to the spectacle of this bald-headed Dane, a B-movie character in his linen suit, glove-leather boots and designer shades, dancing with a bunch of drunken Pygmies amid the ruined dreams of civilization.”
I recently had a chance to ask Mads how he responds to those critics (including the country of Liberia, who have threatened legal action against him), as well as find out about the day-to-day realities (read: diarrhea) of working in a country so poor they have to import eggs. Enjoy.
“It was the most hardcore thing I have ever seen.”
What was your end game going into The Ambassador? When you first envisioned the project, what did you hope to find out and in a perfect world what were you going to get out of it?
Well, I’m a “Let’s see what happens” kind of guy. I was thinking what kind of people we will meet, and what sort of environment will I be involved in. But I did have ideas about what kind of place this Central African Republic is. It is the most forgotten country in Africa if not the world; it does attract a lot of shady people because it is the ultimate hideaway. So, I did suspect I would meet some bizarre characters, which I really did, but I had no idea that I would run into characters such as the head of security of that was assassinated. That was something that really came as a surprise. I was also, almost on a daily basis, shocked about how easy it was for me to operate in the Central African Republic, and how few questions I was confronted with about who I was and what I was up to. Take a look at the most obvious question, “How come a very white guy is representing an African country to another African country?” This very obvious question was never asked by anybody. I had the ambition or idea that a diplomatic channel would be an access ticket, it would grant me access to the inner sanctuaries of power in a failed African state, and it surely did.
How much were you willing to pay to buy diplomatic credentials? How did you get in contact with those people that you were trying to buy them from? It almost seemed that you were Googling people in the movie.
Well, I did do a lot of research about this business of obtaining diplomatic access. There are a lot of scholars in this field. What I found out in an early stage was that anything below a hundred thousand dollars is a scam, and to be avoided. Further more, if they don’t ask to meet you in person, before anything happens, then it is also a scam. Third of all, if they do not fairly quickly suggest a meeting with a representative of the government that you are to represent, it is also a scam. But apart from that, it’s incredibly easy, and if you have the money and you have a business suit and you are capable of speaking English or French you are in the loop.
There didn’t seem like there was much infrastructure in the Central African Republic. I was wondering what did you eat while you were there?
I really like that question, because that was a great concern for me. I had a lot of grilled chicken because of frequent electricity blackouts getting fresh food is really difficult. A lot of people suffer from constant diarrhea when they are there. I would meet people who had diarrhea on a daily basis for eight years. They made a very nice grilled chicken, which they traditionally enjoy with French mustard. It’s an acquired taste, but once you try it it’s great.
Was this something you could get at a restaurant?
You could get it at most places. One large restaurant, that is relatively speaking, it’s a restaurant called L’Equater, it means the Equator, which is a swanky place, and I remember one night being there and while eating, this officer from the French Foreign Legion enters, this elderly silver-fox kind of guy, a real leatherneck, and he orders raw beef tartar and a glass of red wine. Having that in the Central African Republic is basically committing suicide. It’s that thing, Russian roulette, with the six bullets in the chamber. He was eating it as if it was another day at the office. We were watching him being in shock. It is the most hardcore thing I have ever seen.
Was there a certain amount of businesses there that catered directly to the sort of diplomats and people in the circles that you were running with?
In Bangui [capital of the CAR] there is this weird nightclub called Zodiac where it’s businessmen and diplomats and dealers go to meet good-looking women. Another place where people such as Mr. Cortzen must be found is waterhole called Tropicana, which is where I met the head of state security [the morbidly obese, cigar-chomping former Legionnaire who was assassinated before the movie was over].
When you were meeting with diplomatic paper brokers, how in character were you when dealing with them?
I was being an alternate version of myself. I told them I was a hugely successful media entrepreneur from Denmark. That I made a lot of money in publishing and film producing – which I have not at all – and that I was looking for a second career. That’s about it.
They didn’t ask much further than that?
No. From the beginning I was really concerned what happened if people would really Google me in depth, because if you do begin to peel the layers of Mr. Cortzen, you will end up with me, but that apparently never happened.
There’s a lot of people that you filmed where I wondered what you had to say to these people for them to allow you to film them. What was your cover, and what were they thinking that was the reason for filming them?
We were using a Canon EOS camera, which looks like a still camera. I told them the photographer was my first officer, because it sounds official and impressive. So they thought he was taking still pictures and they didn’t care, really. Eventually we got to film a lot of things, which would be impossible to film, such as the whole process of leaving with Mr. Gilbert. [Brügger speaks here of a sequence in the film when the gold-toothed, crocodile-smiled diamond-mine owner, Mr. Gilbert takes Brügger on a tour of the mine, and as they're leaving in an SUV, Gilbert's Muslim child-bride tries to jump in the car with them. Gilbert shoves her out and exhorts them not to "shame him in front of the white men."]