Friday, November 16, 2012

DVD Review: The Ambassador

The Ambassador
Directed by: Mads Brugger.

Mads Brugger was certainly brave – or foolhardy – when he made The Ambassador. His goal was to show the corruption that is rife in Africa – how government diplomatic credentials can be bought and sold for the right price, how these fake diplomats head into Africa saying good things about building infrastructure and factories to help the poor, which is really no more than a ruse to get their hands on blood diamonds – mined by children, exploited by rich miners – and then how these diplomats are able to smuggle these blood diamonds out – because of their diplomatic credentials, they are never searched. And Brugger does all that. This Danish journalist disguises himself as the most outrageously clothed diplomat you can imagine – it’s like he shops at Imperialists R Us or something – and then films everyone on hidden cameras – or sometimes even video cameras that he ensures his guests are just still cameras – boldly incriminating themselves just minutes after meeting him. There is no shame here, no secrecy. Everyone knows what is happening, and no one does anything to stop it.

So why, if Brugger does what he sets out to do in exposing the corruption, was I so uncomfortable while watching The Ambassador? It wasn’t just the behavior of the corrupt that gave that feeling – that’s to be expected. But it was also Brugger’s behavior. His ruse, that all diplomats have because they need a legitimate reason to be there, is that he’s going to set up a match factory where the poor will work. He hires an expert from India, and even holds training sessions with the pygmies, who he insists on hiring, because, in his words, the Africans think they have magical powers. He even hires two pygmy assistants to follow him around, and delights in dancing with them. He makes up racist posters, saying that all the Africans problems are caused by the French and the Chinese. He shows them videos to this effect. He acknowledges in his voice over that he is giving these people a false sense of hope, but justifies it by saying that it goes on, on a much larger scale, every day. But that doesn’t justify it. He takes the phony match factory idea to illogical extremes – way farther than he needs to in order to expose the corruption and get the blood diamonds he needs.

I was also confused by his behavior often in the movie – the racist jokes and speeches he makes almost constantly. I know he’s trying to poke fun at the phony diplomats, who are clueless and racist, as well as the corrupt African officials themselves – trying to prod them into saying something. But more often than not, I got the feeling that this entire movie was really just a way for Brugger to amuse himself. It’s like he’s trying to do what Sacha Baron Cohen did in Borat or Bruno – the difference of course, is rather than rubbing Middle America’s nose in their own racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia, Brugger exploits the very people who are exploited all the time, and the supposed purpose of this documentary is to expose that exploitation. Even Baron Cohen – a genius at this type of film - takes his gambit too far at times, and gets into some shady ethical territory. Brugger goes far beyond that in The Ambassador.

It should be said that Brugger did take real risks during the making of this film. The people he deals with are not screwing around, and have no problem with killing people and leaving them a ditch – in fact by the time Brugger is done filming in Africa, one of the people he interviewed had already been assassinated. It took guts for Brugger to do what he does in this film. And he does expose real corruption. That doesn’t excuse some of his behavior, or make me like the movie all that much more, but I do feel it’s right to give credit where credit’s due. I don’t like The Ambassador, but I admire the guts it took to make it.

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