Interview: Mads Brügger, director of The Ambassador

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.”]

“The lack of causality is really stressful.”

When you are bribing a guy who owns a diamond mine, what is his incentive to do something for you? Isn’t his only incentive to give you a lesser amount of diamonds than you give him in money?

As a business model, it wasn’t that great. For a long time I was expecting that Mr. Gilbert would not give me any diamonds at all. I think it was only because, as the head of state security says in the beginning, “The only thing that matters in the Central African Republic is who do you know.” I think that when Mr. Gilbert became aware of me meeting with the son of the president he became a lot more forthcoming. It’s very difficult establishing the value of uncut diamonds. In the Central African Republic, uncut diamonds aren’t worth that much.

So they need someone to take them. They need a middleman, basically.


Do you know what has happened to Colin Evans and Mr. Tijssen? What’s happened to them since you showed them in the movie?

I don’t know really. The website of Colin Evans seems to have closed down more or less. They have a front page saying, “We do not sell diplomatic titles.” Willem Tijssen I have heard a lot from. He’s very angry, and very active on the internet, slandering me and the film. He has a blog where he writes about it. He tried to stop the screening of the film when it premiered in Amsterdam at the IDFA Festival. He went on a hot show with a debate with the chairman of the festival, and then went on the most popular news talk show, but he really did a bad job for himself, I will say. But he did great PR for the film.

What is his excuse, or how does he explain his function?

I don’t know really. I don’t understand. Take a look at his blog. [The blog in question seems to have been removed, but I did find comments from Tijssen where he basically claims that Brügger is a Nazi because of his association with Lars von Trier, who is a Nazi because he made that comment about “I understand Hitler.” Which only makes Von Trier a Nazi if you’re an idiot.]

For you personally, which place was scarier? Where did you fear more for your personal safety? Liberia or Central African Republic?

Definitely the Central African Republic, because it is the lack of reality principle and causality is really stressful. It’s a place where anything can happen anytime, but that is also what makes it so very interesting.

You mean because you just don’t know what people’s motives are or why they’re even there.

Exactly, and having cocktails with the son of the President, maybe ten minutes later you will find yourself in a torture dungeon, not because of something you have said or done but because of something completely out of your control because of the lack of causality. Furthermore, being very white and being very visible, of course, makes you feel very exposed. On the other hand, by being so very exposed and visible, dressing like a neo-colonial dandy, people think, “If he is dressing like this he has to be for real.” No one in their right mind would come to CAR wearing these outfits without being for real. Furthermore, they would think he has been very rich and powerful, so we will not kill him.

I was interested in the function of your secretary, Maria, she seemed like she was in on it but at certain points seemed angry at you for doing certain things.

Well, her and I are the only ones who are in on it. She’s also the production manager of the film. She’s a very brave lady. I would never have been able to do the film without her. Also, because she is francophone. But the scene at the end really is a breaking point, this is where she snaps because she was hating the guts of Mr. Gilbert, she simply couldn’t stand dealing with him anymore. Because of her being francophone she could really understand the finer details of what he was saying and what he was about.

Was he basically just trying to string you along so you could give him more and more money?

I think so, yes. It’s not in the film, it wasn’t in the rough cut, at one point he told me, that seemed very honest I think, that he had very raw feelings for me.

What about Paul, your assistant? [In the film, Brügger employs a fixer of sorts, an African named Paul]

Paul knows about the film now. That has, for sure, been a major experience for him. He is in the film because when I met him the first time being in the Central African Republic to do research about the place I learned he does not have children and he wants to get away the Central African Republic and go to another country where he lived for a period of time. Furthermore, he’s related to the former President. There’s a protection in that. He’s also related to Mr. Gilbert, by the way.

Was he Muslim, also?

No, he’s not. Actually, I’m not certain about that. But, no, I don’t think he was Muslim.

In a place that is that openly corrupt, you had the match factory as a cover, and I was curious how the cover would function, and why you planned that, and how that worked.

As a cover it was working really well, I would say, and having an Indian matchmaking expert come to town made me seem very credible. The idea that would actually go all the way to have an Indian matchmaker flown in simply doesn’t seem possible. Actually, if the place hadn’t been as corrupt as it is and dysfunctional as it is, the business model for the match factory really worked. According to the Indian match expert, he said, “We could make a lot of money on this.”

Just from selling matches to the locals.

Yes, locally produced matches instead of importing everything from Cameroon.

How far were you willing to take that match factory cover?

As far as possible, but that [isn’t] very far because of the police being so corrupt and not functioning, getting a match factory going is almost impossible.

From the lack of security?

Yeah, everybody wants a piece of the pie. Almost all internationals have pulled out of the Central African Republic: Proctor & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Nestle, Kraft. They have all left because they cannot operate there. If they cannot operate that’s certain that I would not be able to make a match factory there.

You do a lot of playing on the racial tensions between the Chinese and the French, and the Africans and the Europeans. I saw that as part of your imperialist, colonialist character that you were creating, but it seems like some people had a problem with that. What were some of the criticisms that you hear the most about the movie?

Well, people who criticize the film and me, as well, as racist, but which I am absolutely not. It is out of the character of Mr. Cortzen, but that is because I experienced the first time I went there, there are a lot of racism going on. Black on black racism, black on Chinese, black on white, white on black. Members of the government and diplomats I met with were bordering on being paranoid about the Chinese. They would say things like, in a hush-hush kind of way, “You know the Chinese are here,” and I would say, “Well, yeah, but where are they?” And they would say, “We don’t know. We never see them, but they are here.” The locals they are beginning to understand that dealing with the Chinese is not as easy and treacherous a proposal as they thought it was. That it does come with a price. There is growing anti-Chinese sentiment in Bangui.

What was your budget? How much were you prepared to pay to but diplomatic credentials there?

The whole budget of the film was a million Euros. We made an estimate of what the diplomatic title would cost, ranging between one-hundred and two-hundred thousand U.S. dollars, and we settled the deal at one-hundred and thirty-five thousand U.S. dollars. I think we would have gone up to two hundred thousand U.S. dollars if necessary.

You didn’t end up going over just from having to pay more bribes than you expected?

That was a concern we had, which is why in the film we are really frustrated about how much money we are throwing at Mr. Gilbert.

After the film came out they indicted you for something in Liberia. Are you just not allowed to go back to that area now or how does that work?

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf properly stated that she wants them to arrest and extradite me to Liberia. I’m definitely not spending my summer holidays in Monrovia.

What are the chances of that?

That would never happen, I’m sure! Unless I go to Liberia, I feel pretty safe.

Did you find it interesting that they got angry at you for embarrassing rather than trying to figure out the corruption on their own?

It’s a classic case of blaming the messenger. She’s using me as a decoy to divert attention from the criticisms she’s facing of rampant corruption and nepotism in her own administration. Her own son is running the country’s oil company. That pretty much sums it all up.

Following up on the food question, on a day-to-day level, what was the hardest thing to get used to?

The electricity blackouts. Having to shave and shower in complete darkness every morning. The logistics of dressing as a vehicle of your identity, having clean shirts, a pressed business suit – it really was a challenge. It’s a really warm and humid place; you’re sweating constantly while wearing this kind of outfit.

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