By Don Simpson | September 3, 2012
With The Ambassador, Mads Brügger literally risks his life during an earnest attempt to purchase a Liberian ambassadorship to the Central African Republic under the moniker “Mads Cortzen.” Why? Well, if we believe his cover story, Brügger hopes to build a match factory to be staffed by at least one pygmy (you know, to give his business venture some local credibility). Brügger’s true goal, however, is to smuggle diamonds out of Africa in his diplomatic luggage. If anyone realizes what Brügger is really doing — studiously documenting this entire venture via hidden cameras — he will almost certainly be killed instantly.
We sat down with the provocateur extraordinaire, Brügger, inside the safe confines of the Alamo’s Highball to discuss his journalistic integrity and uncompromising approach to non-fiction filmmaking.
Don Simpson: How did you seek to achieve a greater sense of reality and cinematic truth in The Ambassador?
Mads Brügger: My daytime job in Denmark is as a journalist, and most of the journalism I have done has been fairly conventional. I don’t wish for a world in which all journalists are doing what I am doing in The Ambassador, that would be horrible! The journalism in this film is as real and fact-checked as possible. With my background in journalism it is very important to me that the characters in my film are real. At the same time, my character is a piece of fiction, with elements of reality of in it. At the end of the day, you would have to agree that I really am the consulate of Liberia. But, apart from me and my secretary Maria, everybody else in the film is real. You can look them up on Google. With my character and the situations I create with my character I do produce reality — there is a lot of Situationalism in it. I just poison the world with drops of, you know, fiction. I am interested in what this makes people do and say. That is still very real to me because they are deciding for themselves what to do and say.
What makes people really uncomfortable, I think, is the idea of making a non-fiction film on a serious subject like the Central African Republic which also has its fun moments. People are not used to laughing at Africa documentaries. Africa documentaries have become their own genre of filmmaking, they have evolved into a pornography of suffering. It is unbearable for many people to watch those films. Maybe it is about time that we have a laugh about some of these horrible things? Because some of these things are so absurd that they can be conceived as funny. [Zimbabwe’s president Robert] Mugabe was made a U.N. Ambassador For Tourism recently! How weird is that? Equatorial Guinea’s President [Teodoro] Obiang [Nguema Mbasogo] was named the ceremonial leader of the African Union! That is utterly crazy! But people feel bad about watching a film about something as serious as the sufferings of the Central African Republic. It takes them out of their comfort zone. But, if I stopped people on the street and asked them if they wanted to see a film about the Central African Republic they would ask to take a rain check. Now, if you ask them if they want to see a film about a very white guy who becomes an African diplomat in the Central African Republic, involving himself in diamond mining and employing Pygmies, then they would be interested. That is what entertainment is about, getting people into the circus tent. Then, while they are watching the film, they are being told a very important and serious story about what goes on in one of the most extreme parts of Africa these days.
DS: One thing that really stands out to me is your approach to cinematography, the “life caught unawares” approach of the clandestine cameras. The known presence of a video camera would have certainly altered the situations.
MB: Most of the film is shot on a Canon EOS, which appeared to the Central Africans to be a still camera. They didn’t have any idea that we were shooting a film. I would tell everyone that the cinematographer (Johan Stahl Winthereik) was my Press Officer, which sounds impressive. We didn’t want to make a film that was comprised entirely of hidden camera footage; but aesthetically, as well as on a semiotic level, the use of hidden camera material signifies that this is the real deal. This is as real as it gets. It emphasizes the reality of the film.
DS: What was the catalyst or motivation for you to put yourself into your documentaries as a primary character?
MB: It was mostly out of necessity. In Denmark, there are people who will continue to say that the films that I do are only about myself, because I am self-obsessed. But I appreciate the honesty of a director putting his [or her] self in front of the camera. The whole idea about a documentary director just being a fly on the wall is in some ways more dishonest than going all in. It was also the only way I could direct this film. We were making a film that nobody knew was being made, so I could not be seen directing it. The only way for me to affect what was going on in the scenes — to maneuver and manipulate the situations — is by being there and using the gut feeling I got while being in the scenes.
DS: Speaking of gut feelings… What was the most dangerous situation you found yourself in during the making of The Ambassador?
MB: At one point we were stopped at nighttime by a military police patrol in Bangui who thought we were mercenaries. We were brought to this Afro-Gothic building — if Doctor Frankenstein had made a police station that would be it — and we were interrogated by a very aggressive officer in charge, who was obviously on drugs, while “Barbie Girl” by Aqua was playing on the radio. He was about to transfer us to the main jail in Bangui, which is a place you don’t come out of in one piece. Luckily we were able to get a hold of one of the ministers we had been working with — and he was awake and not drunk, like he usually was — and he sorted stuff out for us. That was really a hairy moment.
DS: So, are there lines that you will not cross?
MB: Of course no film is worth anybody getting killed, myself included. I am not a thrill-seeker. I do enjoy pushing the envelope and being in extreme environments, but I am very concerned about getting myself killed. With The Ambassador, 90% of the characters are men of power and influence, who enjoy a lot of protection because of the titles they hold. As such, they can fight for themselves.
What I still have to deal with, however, is Red Chapel because of what happened with the North Korean handlers that were assigned to work with us. Did the regime come down on them? That is a problem that relates to all filmmakers who shoot regime critical films in North Korea. So the question is, should we refrain from filming there? If you don’t do something that is politically correct toward the Kim’s then there could be repercussions for the people involved in the film. If you have difficulties with films that might have consequences, then you should not do documentaries, that is for sure.
DS: Are you concerned that this gig will be up — that the subjects of your future film productions will be able to identify you as Mads Brügger the provocateur?
MB: That is something I have been thinking about. I think my role playing days are pretty much over, unless I change my appearance in a very radical way. So, yeah, I am looking for a new shtick.
After dealing with a lot of legal hullabaloo, Drafthouse Films bravely acquired the U.S. distribution rights for this highly controversial documentary. The Ambassador is currently enjoying a very targeted theatrical release and is also available on VOD and digital platforms.