Mads Brügger's "The Ambassador," out today in New York City, is a demonic documentary with angelic ambitions. A professional provocateur from Denmark whose last film exposed the inner workings of North Korea, Brügger purchased a Liberian ambassadorship on the black market (under the name Mads Cortzen), joined forces with a blood-diamond mining kingpin in war-torn Central African Republic and set about proving how horrifically easy it is to smuggle gems out of crippled countries and, in the process, rob the local populace blind. Using some hidden cameras but relying mostly on an in-plain-sight Canon 7D, he surreptitiously filmed his interactions with the many scoundrels eager to fleece him -- from shady brokers of diplomatic credentials to the "assistant" who counsels him to make a disastrous business deal. And he indulged in some exploitation of his own, hiring a village of Pygmies to staff up a matchstick factory that, to their eventual disappointment, would never be built. (Every shady diplomat needs a cover story, after all.) But what bothers critics the most, perhaps, is Brügger's habit of prancing around in a preposterous colonial getup, making offensive remarks and generally playing the part of the amoral white chancer to the hilt.
It's a performance no journalism professor could condone, but it brings to light truths that no Reuters dispatch ever could -- in a darkly comic style that invites attention from those who would sooner catch malaria than sit through another National Geographic documentary on Africa's vanishing wilderness. Watch HuffPost Arts & Culture's exclusive clip, above, then read on to hear what Brügger had to say about his methods, his targets and what he did with all those diamonds.
Michael Hogan: I know the only American audiences so far have been festival audiences. How has the reaction been so far?
Mads Brügger: Very good, for the most part. Though at Sundance, the first question was from a very angry man who shouted, "How do you feel about being an international criminal?" To which I said, "I think it beats being a national criminal."
And that's sort of the point, right? That by becoming a diplomat, you can show what these guys are able to get away with with their immunity, and the damage that they can wreak legally.
Yes. And for me the most frightening thing about "The Ambassador" is that it exposes how easy it is for characters such as Mr. Cortzen to rape a country in a matter of weeks. Because these failed states such as the Central African Republic are so fragile and exposed. So the question becomes: What happens when the real Mr. Cortzen comes around?
Do you have a sense from your research of how many other characters like this may be operating in Africa?
Well, because of the film, in Liberia the press there have already identified eight Mr. Cortzen-like guys in their country's diplomatic corps. Which they are looking into now, because they seem to be dodgy and shady characters.
And they're all from Europe?
They have a Korean ambassador, and he doesn't seem to be very African to me.
Well, it's amazing, because you -- I was just going to say you were "playing," but it's not playing -- you literally were an ambassador from Liberia, which is pretty strange since you're pretty clearly European and quite distinctly Danish.
Yes, what was so weird about it was that nobody ever asked me the very obvious question, which is: "How come you, an extremely white human being, are representing an African country to another African country?" Nobody asked me that question.
It just never came up.
No, but in a place such as Central African Republic, people expect white men to have at least six hidden agendas, and because of that a lot of obvious questions never get asked.
What was the atmosphere like there? It's obviously a dangerous, chaotic place. The people you met, were they frightened by that? Were they exhilarated by that? Was it a mix?
You have to realize that the Central African Republic is the ultimate hideaway. If you really want to get off the radar, you go to Bangui. So it's a place that attracts dodgy and shady people. In the diplomatic world, being positioned in Bangui is, I think, the ultimate punishment. They will send you there if you have really done bad. If they never want to hear from you again, they will send you to Bangui. That said, you also have a very colorful and intriguing cultural and diplomatic corps. But what struck me the most was that, because of the level of corruption, even the people of power and of influence and people who should be living a very secure and comfortable life live a life of paranoia and fear. They are basically in fear of everybody.
The security chief that you interviewed ended up being killed just a few weeks after you talked to him.
And that's reasonably common there?
Well, as we say in the film, his predecessor was also assassinated. But you know, some of the diplomats there told me that maybe he was involved in a state coup himself, but you never can tell who did him in.
The film seems to have various targets, and I know you're getting some heat, not only from critics but also the Liberian government --
Well, [Liberian president] Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said in an interview that she wants Denmark to extradite me back to Liberia.
And what are the chances of Denmark complying with that request?
It's a very unlikely scenario, I would say. And I hope so!
But I wanted to talk about the targets of the film, because they're big targets, and the boldness of the film shows how hard they are to get at. Diplomats are obviously one of them, but I also know that you mentioned in a few interviews that you wanted to get past the Africa of the N.G.O.'s. What is it about that do-gooder world that bothers you, as far as their portrayal of Africa or their activities in Africa?
Well, it has been as if, if you consider the generic Africa documentary, that they have had some sort of monopoly on how to portray Africa. They have been in control of the whole Africa discourse. Apart from that, I don't have any grudges against the N.G.O.'s, although I find it reasonable to be critical of how they are working. But my ambition was to make a film which would deviate as much as possible from the typical Africa documentary. Part of the doing-good industry is painting things in blackest black -- it's almost like a pornography of suffering. Which is necessary if the N.G.O.'s are to get funding for doing what they are doing. But that is also the explanation for why people can no longer stand or bear to watch films about Africa.
Do you think it also lets people off the hook, because it presents these problems as things without a cause? The only thing that can be done about it is sending more relief money.
Exactly. It tends to make people think that it's a quick fix. If you send money to Oxfam or the Red Cross, some people will deal with it and it will get better. But in a place like the Central African Republic, foreign aid is to them what cocaine is to Colombia. It's part of the explanation for why that country is functioning so bad as it is. And apart from that, people are generally not being told about the geopolitical context for why some countries are doing as bad as they are. In Europe, at least, we never discuss what France is doing in Africa. And when you are in the Central African Republic, you can really feel the enormous influence and power of France. That whole system which France based its neocolonial future on, the so-called Francafrique -- "friqué" also meaning "money" in French -- that mix of corruption still exists today.
That brings me to one of the other targets I wanted to ask you about, which is journalism. Journalism has entered a new era, thanks to the Internet, and major news institutions have responded in various ways, and one of the ways has been to close down a lot of international bureaus. But do you think that journalism and journalists are dropping the ball as far as bringing stories back from places that are hard to get to and off the beaten track?
Well, I do believe in journalism, and I do not advocate that all journalists do what I'm doing. But I think it's necessary, if journalism is to survive and prosper, that it becomes more sophisticated and advanced than what it's about today. For instance, in many places working journalists can no longer operate. Doing narco-journalism in Mexico is extremely dangerous. As a journalist in Russia, it's increasingly difficult. In many parts of Asia, journalists are being harassed. So in these cases, I think it's necessary for journalists to use a completely new set of tools, so to speak.
Is one of the things that the film is saying that some stories are so hard to get and so difficult to report that the old Woodward-and-Bernstein techniques are not fit for the job?
Exactly. And it occurs to me that in a way diplomats are super-journalists. There are a lot of similarities, and of course some very important differences. In many ways, at the end of the day the jobs kind of resemble each other. It's about speaking with people, finding out what's really going on behind the scenes, but diplomats enjoy a lot of advantages that journalists do not. Apart from being very respected, which is strange once you learn what diplomats are really about.
That's a problem journalists don't generally have -- being well respected by everyone they meet. Let's talk a bit about diamonds. I don't know how popular diamonds are in Europe, but they are absolutely still the go-to engagement ring gift in the U.S. What's your view on diamonds after your time in the Central African Republic?
Well, speaking only on my knowledge of working there -- I was and still am a fully licensed diamond dealer in the Central African Republic [laughs] -- it's very apparent that the Kimberly Process is not working at all.
Can you explain that?
That's the whole idea of having diamonds declared safe diamonds. That they have been mined in a conflict-free area. It's a way of making diamonds legitimate. And the idea is great, but in a place such as the Central African Republic it's simply not working. Because the borders are so porous, thousands and thousands of diamonds are being smuggled out on an hourly basis, I would say. And in a place like the Central African Republic, what should be like pennies from heaven, a blessing, is really a curse. It is one of the demonic forces that are destroying the country. And you know, their inability to mine these diamonds for their own advantage is really depressing. At one point DeBeers, the world's biggest diamond cartel, went in there and built an industrial mining operation, importing a lot of equipment. So a moment came when a call was made from Paris telling the Minister of Mines that France was not pleased about DeBeers being in the Central African Republic. And then -- I heard this story from two different diplomats -- DeBeers was given 24 hours to leave the country. And they're not guys you muscle around easily.
What did you do with the diamonds you acquired? Did you smuggle them out of the country?
I sold them inside the Central African Republic to some Syrian-Armenian diamond dealers in Bangui.
Did you make enough to help finance the film?
No. The money I made from selling the diamonds -- and it was very much a buyer's market -- I gave to the Pygmies for incorporating the match factory. It's not in the film because it's very off-character if I was suddenly doing good.
"The Ambassador" opens in New York City today, August 29, 2012.
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements.Learn more