When Borat proved to be a ginormous hit, it was assumed the world would soon be beset by a barrage of knockoffs with comedians putting on personas and casting bystanders as satirical costars. But, those films never came. The reason is simple: you’ve got to be incredibly talented, have balls of steel, and have some incredibly fortuitous luck to pull something like that off. Enter Danish provocateur Mads Bruegger and his film The Ambassador. It’s something that will never compete with Sacha Baron Cohen’s iconic creation for pure laugh count, but in terms of audacious technique his film almost tops it. Bruegger’s subject is third world political corruption and he exposes it by creating it.
Early on the filmmaker comments how an easy get-rich-quick scheme is to attain a diplomatic passport, and travel to Central Africa with a brief case full of diamonds and several “envelopes of happiness” to bribe your way into cheap labor money pits and buckets full of diamonds. Then, rather remarkably, he pulls it off, meeting with powerful political figures with ease and setting up humorously false deals on hidden cameras. It’s almost unbelievable to think that he actually completed the documentary given that one false move could have led to quick arrest or an easy death. His eventual film isn’t exactly a masterpiece, but as a work of daredevil filmmaking and political satire, it really has to be seen to be believed.
Bruegger appears in the film as Mads Cortzen, a dapper gent with some sort of nicotine stick perpetually perched on his lip and an ironic sense of humor. He appears in a Liberia and the Central African Republic riding around in a flag flying Volvo, meeting with any one he can in an attempt to build a match factory and make a fortune. The filmmaker/journalist/anarchist seeks to present a world where everything is for sale and he is able to quickly purchase Liberian diplomatic credentials and set up meetings with the minister of state security, relatives of the president, and a diamond mine owner on demand. Handshakes and bribes immediately put him on a path to set up his own exploitation match/money factory. It’s deeply amusing and somewhat terrifying to see how easily this can be accomplished and also just how deeply untrustworthy each and every one of these high-profile contacts turn out to be. There’s an uneasy uncertainty about the whole endeavor with Mads constantly on the edge of being found out or being ripped off. Still it turns out that for a few thousand dollars in bribes a prankster can become an African mogul fairly easily.
Now, you might at this point start to feel uncomfortable about his concept that plays genuine corruption and human tragedy for laughs. That’s completely fair and a somewhat unclear aspect of the film. As much as Bruegger is trying to uncover nasty African corruption, he’s also gently satirizing the distinctly European snide snobbery behind the concept and the real life sleazy diplomats who might take Bruegger’s place. Though there are many darkly funny moments in the film, it’s not exactly a comedy and certainly scenes in which the filmmaker is able to enter actual muddy blood diamond mines can be painful to watch. It’s that tonal inconsistency that both makes the film so fascinating and also qualifies as it’s greatest weakness. Obviously, you can’t exactly set out on a project like this knowing exactly how it will turn out, but Bruegger’s motives for the film are particularly unclear. Is this satire or journalism? Who knows? Clearly Breugger’s happy to dabble in either form, but pulling it all together into something cohesive and clear isn’t exactly his strength.
So what you have in The Ambassador is an undeniably fascinating film, just one far easier to admire than it is to enjoy. Bruegger’s commitment to the concept and the character he created is remarkable and the fact that this film even exists qualifies as an incredible achievement. The world of diamond smugglers, opportunistic diplomats, and corrupt African officials that he presents is frighteningly, depressingly real, and a intriguing world to explore. The only trouble is that out of necessity the filmmaker was not able to craft much of a form to his story and there is an uncomfortable level of exploitation on his part in regards to what he’s getting out of his involuntary co-stars. Still, anything Bruegger does is far, far less damaging than the actions of the people he’s exposing do every day. For anyone interested in Gonzo filmmaking or third world corruption, The Ambassador is a must see. The flaws are easy enough to ignore and if Bruegger keeps pursuing this brand of documentary filmmaking, it’s almost guaranteed that he’ll make something very special. He’s clearly got the brains, talent, and balls to pull these things off, now he’s just to luck out and stumble into a story as effective as his method.