MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

A colonial dandy gets more than he bargained for in ‘Ambassador’

At first glance, you’d think that making a film documenting crime and corruption in central Africa, and exposing the underground trade in passports and other official documents, would be as difficult as fishing with hand grenades. It pretty much is, but no one told Mads Brügger that the hard part would be staying alive long enough to see it finished.

“It’s the ultimate dog-eat-dog world,” says Brugger, in New York for the debut of “The Ambassador,” his alternately disturbing and darkly humorous documentary. “Corruption defines all social interaction. It’s like chasing the white rabbit down the hole in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ … you don’t find it as much as it finds you.

“I didn’t encounter much honesty. Everyone was a crook … even me.”

A journalist, TV host and amateur comedian, Brugger’s original target was the easy availability of fraudulent diplomatic credentials, if one knows where to look and can afford them. They open the door to powerful and influential people willing to trade their nation’s most valuable commodities for foreign currency and sometimes allow for diplomatic immunity – was too tempting to ignore. The Dane’s last “ironic” documentary, “The Red Chapel,” took him to North Korea, so, by comparison, how much worse could things be in the Central Africa Republic?

Located at the geographical center of the continent, the onetime French colony is just a tad smaller than Texas. Since gaining its independence in 1960, there have been several successful coups and a few that have failed. They are, perhaps, less expensive than holding elections.

Despite such abundant resources as timber, gold, diamonds, uranium and oil, the CAR is one of the least developed countries in the world and its citizens are among the poorest. If the country wasn’t largely self-sufficient in the production of food, its people probably would have starved to death 20 years ago and no one would have noticed.

Perversely, not long after gaining its independence, the CAR succeeded in leading the world in bad publicity, mostly resulting from the egomaniacal behavior of its onetime “president for life” Jean-Bedel Bokassa. Not satisfied with that title, the dictator would later declare himself emperor of the freshly re-named Central African Empire and spent $30 million of someone else’s money for the coronation ceremony. Before being deposed three years later, Bokassa is believed to have stashed away $125 million in Swiss banks.

The CAR was the first destination suggested to Brugger after he illegally obtained a Liberian diplomatic passport from a shady character in Portugal. Because the smaller, frequently embattled coastal nation didn’t have normal relations with the CAR, he was able to pretend that he – a very white northern European man poseur – was conducting business in its name. And, boy, did he take to the part.

Looking like a cross between Hunter S. Thompson, Sascha Baron Cohen and the late comedian, Michael O’Donoghue, Brugger often affected the look of a mid-20th Century “colonial dandy.” With his dark sunglasses, light-colored suits, riding boots, cigarette holder and elitist attitudes, it looked as if he was to the manner born.

“Journalistically, the look I was going for was ‘Borat meets the Economist,’” Brugger quips. “I was every black African’s fantasy of what every white businessman looked like. I learned that if I were a black, people there would be more suspicious of me.

“But, then, I had my own fantasies of black Africa. Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve entertained the notion of living with pygmies and practicing voodoo.”

Indeed, as a cover for his interest in the country’s lucrative blood-diamond trade, Brugger announced his plan to build a matcfactory in collaboration with members of the pygmy community. His government contact was so warmed by this that he assigned two pygmies to accompany the faux businessmen wherever he went. They weren’t, however, fluent in any of the languages Brugger spoke, so “communicating was difficult.”

Although, historically, pygmies have lived primarily in the bush and rain forest, “The Ambassador” takes us to a small village, only a short drive from the capital of Bangui. Brugger suspects that all dignitaries are exposed to the same dog-and-pony show, as it appears to demonstrate the nation’s concern for their welfare. Not surprisingly, the festivities involve lots of homemade hooch.

“Racism is the order of the day … black on black, white on black, black on the French and Chinese, tribe on tribe,” Brugger argues. “Part of who I am in the film would be out of character if I didn’t play along, at least.”

Institutional corruption is fueled not by racism or political beliefs, though. It takes “envelopes of happiness,” filled with millions of CFA francs, to grease the exchange of rough diamonds. This, of course, was on top of the $135,000 tab for the passport, a MBA from a Liberian college and driver’s license. The money was supplied by the Danish Film Institute, which, along with Lars Von Trier’s Zentropa production company, supported the documentary.

“It’s a highly inflated currency, so it’s not as impressive a figure as it sounds,” he points out. “Still, within the boundaries of the CAR, it was a lot of money. Because of the strict restrictions imposed on the trade of uncut blood diamonds, they’re not that valuable, either.”

Brugger’s triumph in “The Ambassador” is to show, using tiny surveillance cameras, what transpires in the inner chambers of corrupt states and recording the musings of fellow diplomats, local wiseguys and swindlers. To put it mildly, it’s appalling. When one confidante suggests that the diamonds can be smuggled out of the country by secreting them in various orifices of the body, it pushes Brugger’s co-conspirator – production manager Eva Jakobsen – almost over the brink of sanity.

“She understood the finer details of what he was saying,” he adds. “The people we were dealing with are very misogynistic, so she was very brave. They display no higher thoughts on the role of women … who are simply considered to be of lesser importance.”

It was at this point in the proceedings that things began to unravel very quickly, and the chaos is reflected in the abruptness of the documentary’s ending. We wonder if Brugger suddenly had figured out what we already knew – that he was being played like a violin– and was pushing the envelope on the ruse.

Brugger decided to end the charade when he learned that the head of state security – a veteran of the French Foreign Legion – had been murdered. The self-assured, cigar-chomping white man had been one of the filmmaker’s primary resources and frequently is seen and heard in “The Ambassador.” It isn’t likely that the assassination had anything to do with Brugger, but it speaks volumes as to the instability of the political situation.

“If I could foresee that happening, I wouldn’t have proceeded,” he says.

The CAR may look small and insignificant on a map, but its natural resources are extremely valuable to countries in need of uranium and oil. The competition between the French and Chinese is especially ferocious. It seemed as if the Africans embraced Brugger simply because he wasn’t from those countries.

We assume that the fixers and government officials shared the money contained in the “envelopes of happiness” and now are cultivating some other suckers. Left unanswered, though, is the question of what happened to the small fortune in rough diamonds in the faux diplomat’s possession. Turns out, Brugger sold the diamonds in-country and donated the money to the pygmies.

Ironically, when he was passing through Customs on his way out of the country, the special police unit assigned to monitor such traffic welcomed him by name and waved him through the inspection point. Naturally, it briefly occurred to Brugger that the bribes paid off and he could have gotten away with murder. He had stipulated beforehand, though, that he wouldn’t profit from any of his character’s shenanigans.

Let’s hope that more juicy details of his adventure have been reserved for the DVD release, slated for late October.

Even though Brugger doesn’t mind the comparisons to Sascha Baron Cohen’s early work, especially the outrageous interviews with gullible politicians and celebrities in “Da Ali G Show,” he defers to a guerrilla journalist from an earlier era.

“Emily Hahn was an American journalist and author who traveled by herself in the 1930s, living with pygmies for two years, crossing central Africa by foot, alone, and partying with Shanghai’s elite before the war,” Brugger relates, forgetting to mention that Hahn often brought her pet gibbon along as her plus-one, wearing a diaper and tailored dinner jacket. “Most journalism today is conducted via telephone. Reporters never leave their desk.”

No matter how much heat he takes from journalism purists for his methodology, Brugger can’t be accused of staying too close to home or avoiding risks. If sometimes he feels as if a target has been painted on his back, it’s not because he’s paranoid.

Embarrassed by the revelation of how easy it was to get phony documents in its name, the government of Liberia threatened him with a lawsuit. Other individuals, whose incomes might have suffered from the revelations, could be inspired to skip the courtroom.

“The Liberian courts and prison service are not the best in the world,” Brugger told the Danish publication, Politiken. “We are speaking of a country in which the president’s son is chairman of the national oil company, despite the fact that he knows next to nothing about oil. They have previously promised that they have stopped the sale of diplomatic titles, so it’s embarrassing that my film shows that is not the case.”

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon