Mads Brügger might just be the ballsiest documentarian working today. The Danish journalist has a schtick not dissimilar to Sacha Baron Cohen’s; only where Cohen is loud and crass, Brügger is subtle and ironic. He’s campaigned for Bush while pretending to be a neo-conservative, brought two disabled comedians to North Korea under the guise of a “cultural exchange” and, in The Ambassador, he’s undertaken his most daring, dangerous mission yet: impersonating a greedy businessman looking to smuggle diamonds out of Africa through a bought ambassadorship. He accomplishes this by actually making himself Liberia’s ambassador to the Central African Republic. The man does not mess around.
Turns out it’s frighteningly easy to become an African ambassador. All you need is enough money and the right connections. It’s that kind of rampant, sickening corruption that Brügger picks apart with this film. Hidden cameras follow as he lays bare the process of taking advantage of institutional instability for personal gain. He meets with politicians, businessmen, and even a few war criminals (note that some of them fall under more than one of those descriptors), and sets up a diamond connection and a phony matchmaking factory as a front. All the while, Brügger must deal with the fact that his ambassadorship still is technically unofficial, meaning that he might be exposed at any time.
Even with the hazards, Brügger can’t help but push the comedy further than the point of safety. You’d think someone would at least do a double take when he suggests that the factory be operated solely by members of a local pygmy tribe, but no. That’s the brilliance of his style; there’s his willingness to say the most ridiculous things with a straight face, and the hilarity is compounded when it’s met with equally straight reactions. He’s playing an insane man, but this is an insane world. No one can tell that it’s all a put-on.
That pitilessly ironic tone carries into the way the film itself is built. The opening credits play to the soft croons of “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” by The Ink Spots. Brügger’s expository narration is downright Herzogian in its deadpan sarcasm. This may be one of the funniest movies made about the horrific economic exploitation of human beings.
And that’s what’s at the center of the doc: a compassionate heart for the voiceless majority in this society. I can’t tell whether it’s purposeful that the only Africans in the film not portrayed as horrible are a pair of silent pygmy tribesmen. Brügger even wonders at points whether what he’s doing is just another form of exploitation. This is a twisted issue, and the twists threaten to ensnare him throughout.
The film’s only big stumble is in its structure. It jumps between current and past events wantonly, often to make a “reveal” when one isn’t needed. What could have been a perfectly understandable story if told straightforwardly is instead confusing. One scene at the beginning turns out to actually take place after all its events, and there’s no transition of “and here’s how we got to this point.” It’s just plain unnecessary.
Funny, biting, and featuring a level of genuine riskiness that we don’t see nearly often enough in documentary filmmaking (or any kind of filmmaking, for that matter), The Ambassador is a great satire despite its narrative stumbles. A serious clown’s journey into the “Appendix of Darkness,” it shows how far we still have to go in tearing the roots of colonialism out of Africa. And it will make you forever distrust diamonds in a way Edward Zwick could only dream of.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
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