People make documentaries for all kinds of reasons. To shed light on an unknown topic or tell an untold side of a story. Or perhaps they're making a love letter to something, or even a takedown piece. If you were going off of The Ambassador alone, it would seem that director Mads Brügger makes documentaries because he wants to get himself killed. This is his Grizzly Man, only Brügger is both Werner Herzog and Timothy Treadwell, and instead of living amongst bears, it's rebel soldiers.
The Ambassador is a film that finds Brügger posing as an over-the-top, rich European man who wants to buy his way to diplomatic status in the Central African Republic. In doing so he peels back layer after layer of systemic corruption, outing government officials (one who is even assassinated during the film) and blood diamond dealers in the process. And he does it all with a crazed smile on his face.
This is a fascinating film, to say the least. Not only does its subject matter court controversy from the real-world people and nations involved (Liberia is trying to sue Brügger), but it's also a film that reflects its director's personality in every frame. Everything he does is for a purpose, from the absurd character he must inhabit in the film, to the way it's edited, to the corruption it explores, to the even wilder characters his schemes bring out of the woodwork. The Ambassador is currently in select theaters and on Video on Demand around the country, which is what gave us the opportunity to peek into the brilliant mind of the Danish journalist behind it all.
Movies.com: What turned you on to the area and the story?
Mads Brügger: Back in 2007 I became aware of the fact that you could purchase a diplomatic title through these diplomatic title brokerages. I knew that would be a really interesting starting point for a documentary, and for a long time I had an ambition to make a documentary that broke from generic African documentaries as much as possible. I knew I wanted to do the film in Africa, and also that I was looking for an extreme kind of Africa, because there are many places in Africa that are quite fine, you know.
So what I did was I met with, in Denmark, this famous Africa journalist named Peter Justesen, known amongst his peers as Congo Peter. I explained to him the idea and said, "Where would you do this?" and he immediately said, "The Central African Republic." And I said, "Excuse me?" Because, as with most people, I hadn't even heard of the place. It is the most unknown, forgotten country in the world, basically.
I was told that when [Jean-Bertrand] Aristide was ousted from Haiti he was to be taken to the Central African Republic. The French and the Americans made a deal, but the the American pilot taking him there had to call his State Department and ask them if there was really a place called the Central African Republic. [Laughs]
Once I became aware of the existence of the Central African Republic I became obsessed with the place, really. I read all the books I could find and watched the few movies that have been made about it and what goes on there, the Bokassa times, especially. I knew immediately how true it was that that would be the perfect place to make The Ambassador.
Movies.com: When it came to the payments to the corrupt officials, where did that money actually come from?
Brügger: They came from the Danish Film Institute, which is a fairly progressive film institute. They were given as a big lump sum of money. They weren't earmarked in little envelopes of happiness, per se. But they knew, of course, that this would involve corruption because I would say that the Central African Republic is one of the most corrupt countries in Africa. It begins in the airport. Upon arrival you have to make a bribe to the custom officers. You cannot exist there without being corrupt. It is logistically not possible.
But also, as we discussed with them, if we were going to do this, we need to go all the way. Not having money, or not being willing to shill out money, would actually be more dangerous than the opposite. It's an avant garde kind of African aid from the Danish government.
Movies.com: Did you have any moral concerns of how the money you were paying as bribes would enter the economy, or what kind of purposes it would be put towards?
Brügger: Of course I do, but it is impossible for me to control what they would spend the money on. Foreign aid to the Central African Republic is what cocaine is to Columbia. The amounts of money I had been throwing around were peanuts compared to what is constantly poured into the pockets of the regime. It's impossible to keep track of what happens with the money.
Movies.com: How long were you actually on the ground filming?
Brügger: Two-and-a-half months, though I was also there in 2008 getting a feel of the dos and don'ts. There's mostly dos.
Movies.com: Did you have to hire any security?
Brügger: I brought a guy with me whose function was more or less to pose as a security guard. He was dressed like a Blackwater mercenary. But that's also because when you're operating on that level, if you don't have security with you, you are not taken seriously. But if something had happened, having one or more bodyguards around would not have mattered, you know.
Movies.com: The character that you play, how much of that is for the inevitable audience watching the film, and how much of it was for the locals?
Brügger: Part of it was for the audience of the film, of course. The character of Mr. Cortzen is very flamboyant in his way of acting and conversing, and that's great for the film, but there's also a -- in operational terms -- a survival strategy in doing it. Because if you blend in too much, you become more suspicious. But going the opposite way, blending out, being highly visible and very overt, there's a protection in that. People think that if he's stressing things like this and behaving the way he does, he must be for real. He has to be very powerful and very wealthy and probably also an imbecile, but that's okay because we will not kill him.
But also through my way of dressing I am signaling to other people what kind of fantasies I am into. Through the way I appear, I think that's the explanation for the bizarre gallery of characters in the film. They're all almost cartoonish in a way.
Movies.com: So you found that your fake character actually drew out these real characters to you?
Brügger: I found that it attracted men who had these same power fantasies and fetishisms that my character was about, which I think is why I bond so well with the head of state security.
Movies.com: That guy strikes an interesting image. He was a character from the get-go.
Brügger: Really, really a character. And very intellectual, actually. He's like the ultimate French bad guys; one of their own monsters that has turned against them.
Movies.com: In context of the timeline, did his death happen while you were there?
Brügger: It happened while I was there, but that's where the film isn't as accurate. I wasn't aware of him having been assassinated. As far as I can track back the chronology, it happened the last week I was there. If I had known about it, I would have left immediately, like a bat out of hell. But when I came back to Copenhagen, I had calls and e-mails from diplomats I had met there who told me about the assassination.
Movies.com: Are there other moments where you reframed the order of events for entertainment purposes?
Brügger: That's the only thing which had been altered a bit for the narrative of the film. There are a lot of technicalities about what had happened with Liberia and my appointment as a consul. At the end, the money I had given Sherman was channeled onward to the new minister of foreign affairs, but explaining all of that was too technical.
Movies.com: Where do you, as a filmmaker, draw the line between journalism and entertainment?
Brügger: That is tricky business. In the DNA of journalism there is also entertainment. Journalism is also, at a certain level, entertainment. For me as a journalist – and in Denmark I have to answer to the film as a journalist, not as a filmmaker – I have to make sure that the journalism is as accurate and as precise as possible. I work hard to make sure I have my research in order, and of course for me it's important that this is not a fiction film, it's not a mockumentary. All the characters in the film, apart from me and Mrs. Maria, who plays my secretary, are real people. You can look them up on Google if you want to. It's also important to me that the film gives an accurate portrayal of what happened. So I'm not able to draw a specific line because it has to relate to a specific moment.
Movies.com: As for Maria, in the moments when she's clearly pushed over the edge, how much of that is for show for the film? Or was it her staying in character for the locals?
Brügger: That was her snapping. That was her breaking point. I think what really wore her down is that she's a Francophone, so she could understand all the subtleties and nuances of what Mr. Gilbert was really saying, and she found him to be the most repulsive human being she'd ever encountered. It almost made her physically sick to be in the same room with him by the end, especially after we'd learned about his child bride in the mines. That really made her angry. I was having more of a Stockholm relationship with him. He was my business partner, after all, but that really was her snapping.
Movies.com: That moment reminds me of, are you familiar with Grizzly Man?
Brügger: Yes, mmhmm.
Movies.com: It reminded me of the moment you learn that his girlfriend has been with him offscreen, and that she's been hidden away and yet tethered to his crazy ambitions.
Brügger: [Laughs] There are some similarities, I would say that. Definitely. But she's obviously a very brave woman, and she knew about the risks and the stakes of this project.
Movies.com: Obviously there's a lot that you discretely record, but there's a lot that you overtly record. What did you tell the locals you were doing when you were overtly filming them?
Brügger: Well, for a lot of it we were using a Canon US camera, which for Central Africans is a still camera. And when we were meeting with ministers, I would tell them my camera man was my press officer, which sounds impressive. So we were able to film scenes that were unfilmable. With Mr. Gilbert, my business partner, I told him that with me speaking such bad French I wanted to tape all of our meetings for my other business partners back in Europe to see-- business partners being a euphemism for the Danish Film Institute. And he didn't care, so we were able to shoot things with him that would find me constantly asking myself why he was not making sure that this wasn't being filmed.
Movies.com: How much were you able to predict how the events were going to actually play out, and did you play your moves accordingly?
Brügger: I had my expectations. I knew contracts in the Central Africa Republic were worth absolutely nothing. I knew that would sooner or later go bad. I had no idea, for instance, that the Indian consul had also planned on starting a match factory and that he had restrained from doing so because it was too dangerous, which is utterly bizarre. How can making matches be so dangerous?
Movies.com: Is there something about the region that attracts match factories?
Brügger: No, but it gets into something I talked about later down the line with the head of security, who tells of how all the matches being imported to the Central African Republic are imported from Cameroon from a company owned and controlled by a Lebanese with French diplomatic status. So if you're messing with these structures of French business enterprises in these former colonies, you will have problems.
Movies.com: Is there anything you can say about what film you're working on next?
Brügger: I'm working together with another Danish filmmaker for a film about the suspicious death of a high-ranking European Union civil servant. It's like a whodunit murder mystery inside the hallways of the commission. Hopefully it will be done around Christmas.