Ethicists, moral philosophers, international aid workers, diplomats and foreign correspondents will be rolling their eyes and grinding their teeth big time through the 93 minutes of this scabrous exercise in “performative journalism” from Danish prankster Mads Brügger.
You could call it an exposé – in this case, of jaw-dropping venality, greed and human folly in the resource-rich Central African Republic and Liberia – but the term “exposé” usually comes freighted with some sense of moral outrage, of wrongs needed to be righted, of critical judgments being exercised and prescriptions offered. There’s none of that here. Instead, The Ambassador chooses to wallow in the amorality it beholds, with Brügger, more Borat than Stephen Lewis, forsaking any pretense of high dudgeon to embrace a callow “let’s-make-some-business” ethos.
The business in this instance is diamonds. For $135,000 (U.S.), Brügger buys from a shady European broker in diplomatic titles an ambassadorship-at-large with the Liberian government, whereupon, credentials and cameras in hand, he flies to Bangui, the destitute capital of the landlocked CAR. “If the Congo is the heart of darkness,” he observes, “[the CAR] is the appendix . . . a lawless territory the size of Texas.” Brügger’s ostensible aim is to set up a match factory in the former French colony, employing impoverished local pygmies – but the real, albeit covert ambition, of course, is to strike a diamond deal with a shifty CAR mine owner, then smuggle the uncut jewels out of the country under cover of diplomatic immunity.
Brügger plays the Ugly European to the hilt. His mouth incessantly clenched on a cigarette holder or oversized cigar or pipe, he lurches from hotel penthouse to government office to sweltering village to diamond mines in riding boots and various gonzo “call-me-bwana” outfits, dispensing both racist remarks and “envelopes of happiness” (i.e., bribes) to all and sundry. During one toast of a businessman, he notes that the champagne they’re drinking is the same brand Hitler and his bride Eva Braun sipped after their marriage and just before their suicide in 1945. On another occasion, he quotes General Patton: “If you tell people where to go, but not how to get there, you’ll be amazed at the results.”
For much of its duration The Ambassador is played for bleak, bitter, often cruel laughs. But it takes a more serious turn in its last half-hour as the CAR is revealed to be a decidedly menacing, murderous place and Brügger, his diplomatic bona fides not quite as solid as first believed, increasingly worries he may be getting in over his undeniably clever head.
At film’s end, you’ll probably feel like having a long, hot shower, metaphoric or otherwise, to wash away the mire Brügger has presented. Had The Ambassador been pitched as a straight, earnest documentary revealing African corruption and the lingering effects of neo-colonialism, it likely wouldn’t have been made. Or even had it been made it wouldn’t have enjoyed the circulation it’s had internationally, at venues such as Sundance and Hot Docs among others, in the last year. Indeed, its very chutzpah and brazenness, its refusal to flinch in the face of the absurdities it sees and, on some occasions, creates, makes it supremely watchable.
Defenders of The Ambassador will probably argue its Swiftian satire and surrealism point to a higher truth – but I don’t know about that. There’s just too much here that disturbs and depresses to be ameliorated with recourse to glib art speak. The Ambassador may be an important, even necessary film; just don’t expect to find it enjoyable.
The Ambassador plays the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, Toronto, Friday through Jan. 17.