INTERVIEW. In his Sundance winner "The Red Chapel", media prankster Mads Brügger travelled to North Korea as a communist theatre director. Now, in "The Ambassador", he has abandoned his role-playing. Or has he? In the Central African Republic on a diplomatic passport, he tries to start up a match factory with a workforce of Pygmies. Per Juul Carlsen asks why.
Please note that this is an exceedingly difficult article to write. The subject is a man role-playing on several levels all at once and exuberantly living out a fetishist fantasy, even while deriding others with similar fantasies. He travels to the heart of Africa disguised as the archetype of an unscrupulous white ambassador circa 1975, claiming that he plans to open a match factory with the unique property that the matches are made by Pygmies – African superstition endows Pygmies with magic powers. But no one he meets has any doubt that what he is really after is diamonds. Ultimately, of course, he is a documentary filmmaker who wants to show Africa from a new angle. But the question remains whether he is not, more than anything, a middle-class Dane living out a fantasy of being an unscrupulous white ambassador in Africa. It's a balancing act, and describing it isn't all that easy, either. It's one out-there story after another, like how he spent 1,000 euros on a pair of Ann Demeulemeester boots to get that authentic "eccentric-white- ambassador-in-Africa" look. Anyone asking if this man here is really role-playing for the fun of it would face the comeback, "Why would anyone hang around deepest Africa filming characters who are clearly killers, with a concealed camera – just for fun?"
"That seemed like a good jumping-off point for a film about Africa stripped of NGOs, sarongs, Bono, child soldiers and kids with bloated bellies."
The man doing all this role-playing is Mads Brügger. Over the last 15 years, he has built up a position in the Danish media as a reporter and TV presenter who is constantly challenging the classic role of the journalist. In Denmark, he is best known for his partnership with Mikael Bertelsen, his co-presenter on "The 11th Hour", a programme that sought to reinvent the talk show and wake viewers up with offbeat anti-stories. In the international media world, he got his 15 minutes of fame when he won the World Cinema Documentary Competition at Sundance for "The Red Chapel", a bizarre documentary about his trip to North Korea masquerading as a communist theatre director.
Now, in "The Ambassador", the 38-year-old media prankster is "beyond role-playing", as he puts it. He is an actual diplomat on a mission to another extreme country, the Central African Republic. This civil-war-ravaged former French colony, Brügger says, is a forgotten time pocket from 1970s Africa or, as he puts it in the film, "If Congo was the heart of darkness, the Central African Republic is the appendix." Brügger travels around the country wearing long boots, sunglasses and a cigarette holder perpetually lodged between his lips. He's "the Man with the Yellow Hat gone bad," Brügger says, referring to the character from the Curious George children's books.
"I found a link to a company on the Web that brokers diplomatic titles between Third World countries and crazy white men looking for a bit of panache and prestige. That seemed like a good jumping-off point for a film about Africa stripped of NGOs, sarongs, Bono, child soldiers and kids with bloated bellies, a film about the kind of people you never see in documentaries on Africa: white businessmen and the diplomats, the fat cats in the urban centres, all the people who are in Africa having a great time," he says.
"I wanted to break the NGOs' monopoly on Africa. I wanted to make an Africa film that had funny moments amidst all the horror and I wanted to make a documentary that took Africa back to Graham Greene and "The Wild Geese" – Africa of the 1970s. You can find that in the Central African Republic, a country that hardly anyone ever heard about."
So Brügger got the idea of becoming that which he was simultaneously assailing and embracing: a white diplomat, who has become one solely for reasons of personal vanity.
"The Ambassador". Photo: Johan Stahl Winthereik
"Going to Africa and playing a diplomat wouldn't be a problem for me. Diplomats aren't always asking to see each other's ID. But instead of playacting, I figured I'd go all in. The role of the diplomat is a lot like that of a journalist. They both have to go see everybody, talk to everybody. They get access to state secrets and a country's most powerful people. Only, diplomats can operate far beyond any ethical boundaries and still remain respected members of society."
Viewed through the lens of traditional journalism, Brügger's method is questionable. He uses a hidden camera and false pretences, but what's less common about "The Ambassador" is that Brügger can rightfully claim that he's not a journalist. He's not operating under false pretences, because he really is the Liberian diplomat Mads Brügger Cortzen. He may have obtained his diplomatic passport through a shady Dutchman, but his papers are in order.
"Exactly because I'm beyond role-playing by actually being a diplomat, I can forge a partnership with the very sinister owner of a diamond mine replete with gold tooth and machete scars on his forehead. That would be highly problematic for a journalist. But it's no problem for a diplomat."
But isn't it a problem for a documentary filmmaker?
"No, it isn't," Brügger replies after some thought, with a crooked, ambiguous smile. Of course, he's on a slippery slope. It's there, on the slippery slope, that things start making sense to him. That's also why this article is so hard to write. What exactly is Brügger up to in "The Ambassador"? Or rather, how much is he up to at once?
He's acting out a childhood dream, ignoring good form in journalism, dismissing the decades-long efforts of NGOs, prodding political correctness by chainsmoking, using a decadent cigarette holder to boot, but he's also documenting how the colonial days aren't over in Africa and how France, the old colonial power, in particular, is playing a murky game.
"The film is a massive criticism of postcolonial Francafrique, French Africa. The Central African Republic could be Africa's Switzerland. They have everything – gold, vast amounts of diamonds, oil, cobalt. The state security chief, who was actually murdered while we were there, used the metaphor that, if you want to prevent a man from running, you put a pebble in his shoe. All the resources the country needs to develop are being spent fighting the rebel army. The state security chief told me that the French Air Force flies two planes equipped with motion and heat detectors over the Central African Republic every day, so they know where the rebel army is. Even though the government for three years has been asking the French to share their information, the French are refusing. That's the pebble in the shoe."
Brügger documents this side of modern Africa, while also offering an exposé of the diplomat's life. There's a scene in the film where Brügger visits a village of the Pygmies he wants to hire as workers in his match factory. As he looks on, the Central African minister of the interior gives the Pygmies, including the children, large amounts of alcohol and soon the Pygmies are partying like crazy.
"That's what the NGOs don't get. You can really have fun in Africa," Brügger tells his assistant Paul, tapping his foot to the beat.
"That may be a bit of overkill," Brügger admits, now that the film is done, then adds, "But, when in Rome ..."
The Ambassador is produced with support from the talent fund New Danish Screen.
Per Juul Carlsen is a film critic on Danish public radio.