Mads Brügger, under the name Mads Cortzen, went about obtaining for himself credentials as a diplomat to the Central African Republic (CAR). With these credentials, one can travel freely without interference from local officials. This is used, Brügger asserts, to allow for shady deals to make these so-called diplomats rich. He eventually engages Diplomatic Services, a credential brokerage company, for $135,000 (which also provided him with an honorary degree from Monrovia University and a Liberian driver’s license). He also looked into a British broker of diplomatic credentials (who has an exclusive plan for “extremely high likelihood of success”) but they could not find a country that would want a consulate in the CAR. So, Brügger goes to Monrovia, Liberia with a plan in motion (by Diplomatic Services) to bribe the appropriate individuals to get his credentials and put him on track to bring blood diamonds out of Africa under the guise of building a match factory in the CAR.
Brügger brings you into a dark and terrible world. It is corrupt, it is sinister, and it is utterly pathetic. Brügger performs on a high wire without a net and only stops on his journey when his “assistant,” Maria Wickhorst (Eva Jakobson), simply cannot continue. A great deal of credit (or concern for her sanity) is due for lasting as long as she did. This is a very impressive film. When it’s over, you realize that the man is insane. We see him shake hands with despicable characters—and that’s putting it lightly.
The commentary is almost essential for a full understanding of events. It also goes some way in rehabilitating your faith in Brügger’s mental well-being. He regularly mentions moments of extreme terror he felt. He understands how some people can see this and think it’s fake. When Marlon Brando’s doppelganger, Guy-Jean le Foll Yamandé, former Head of State Security for CAR, hunkered down on the couch and started to speak in elaborate metaphor as though reading off a card, was the first time I suspected a con. A Google search on Yamandé was unavailing (as to non-The Ambassador hits), but that isn’t too surprising. Or I was totally taken in. Hard to say. But incorporating Pygmies doesn’t help.
Yamandé is the central figure in the film. Brügger may direct the action, but Yamandé provides analysis, background, and honesty to the story. The relative freedom with which he speaks may seem strange, but know now (if you haven’t seen it) that Brügger accomplishes his main goals. His goals are to get the credentials, fake start the business, get diamonds, and bring them out of Africa. So Yamandé, when he says that the way the powers that be affect things in CAR (and Africa generally) is to “put a stone in the shoe” (and later gives a real example) it’s chilling. The French do not come off well in this movie. In fact, the image of the French as sinister is hard to accept. Pompous, arrogant whiners with an appetite for creatures that infest ditches and swamps, yes, but an image of malevolent colonialist manipulators seems to belong to another generation entirely.
The overarching theme and subject, though, is corruption. Liberian and CAR officials and business people displayed in the film are utterly shameless in their openness to bribery. In the commentary, Brügger talks about his yes-man aide, who helps him navigate this despicable world, and how he doesn’t understand what the movie is about or why it was made when it was finally explained to him. That is instructive. In a way, these people are very much like children—more specifically, boys—around the age of eleven. They have a vague notion of right and wrong, but it isn’t systematic and it is wholly determined by the strongest kids on the playground. It’s Lord of the Flies out there. Golding may have been trying to draw a parallel between war and the marooned children, but The Ambassador provides a dark third realm where people don’t even have complex substitutes for the conch—it’s just diamonds. While a libel action was clearly going to happen, these people will have a devil of a time winning the suit. They said what they said and did what they did; it’s all here to see.
To be quite frank, I do have a small fear in the back of my mind that someone is going to break down the door beat me to death and steal this BluRay. How Brügger lives his life day-to-day must be a terror. He’s got sand, no question, but being outside the danger-zone probably creates sharp moments of terror. We all have moments late in the night, just as we fall asleep, as though we’re falling down and jerk awake. Every door opening behind him, car back-fire, and seemingly familiar car must give him pause. It’s clear the people in this movie aren’t above that. Children hold grudges and have trouble understanding consequences.
To be a bit superficial for a moment, let’s talk about the production, performances, and such. The narration is utterly monotonous. So, when he uses idioms or casual language (like “but who cares?”) it sounds doubly bad. A part of this is useful. It makes it seem more legitimate and less biased than if he spoke more eloquently in content or with more pathos. It’s odd, but clarity creates more distrust than stammering, rough understanding. The commentary is so full of extra information that so much more could have been more incorporated into the film. Most of it would be information but also some judgment. None of these individuals are well known. Context is not something most Americans can provide. So when Brügger waits until the end to say that the President of Liberia was banned from being a member of the government (unsuccessfully, obviously), it affects how one watches the film. Perhaps to good effect. After all, I was more greatly affected by the final fifteen minutes of the film than any other moment.
The construction of the film is excellent. There are times where the timeline gets a bit confused, but most of the film is so riveting that you can’t tell until the end (and that’s picking nits). The filming, which was (according to the commentary) done as if those involved were tourists (to avoid suspicion) is effective. Whether it is the content or the style, the filming is rather unobtrusive and that’s exactly right. It is stylized enough to avoid boredom, but there is no sense that things are staged (only liberally intercut). The music, too, is top notch in selection and placement.
This is The Jungle with Brügger’s neck stuck far out. It should hold a place commensurate with Sinclair’s classic. It won’t because it will not be as widely seen or as politically effective. You can get American’s upset about the quality of their food, but something this complicated, with no guide to a remedy, will only cause a brief sadness and then an inevitable dissipation, leaving a vague impression of Africa as an unruly, corrupt place that should be avoided. Thus, Africa is left to the devices of people with no conscience or decency.
Absolutely worth buying. Or renting (until it gets under $20).