Saturday, January 21, 2012

Sundance ’12: The Ambassador

Ambassadors are generally addressed as “your Excellency,” which is nice. They can also carry briefcases loaded with diamonds through customs, no questions asked. That is even cooler. It is definitely what mad Mads Brügger had in mind when he set out to buy a diplomatic post. His resulting misadventures are documented in The Ambassador (trailer here), Brügger’s latest gutsy cinematic provocation screening at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

If you have seen Brügger’s Red Chapel (and I really hope you have), you will be familiar with his fearless brand of documentary filmmaking. The plan this time is to buy an ambassadorship representing Liberia in the Central African Republic (CAR) through a “diplomatic broker.” Once credentialed, Brügger will establish a match factory as a cover for his illegal diamond smuggling operation. The shocking thing is he pretty much goes about doing exactly that, but there are complications.

For the record, these are very definitely blood diamonds he is talking about. There just aren’t any other kind in the CAR. That means the politically connected mine owner Brügger starts negotiating with is a pretty scary character. Indeed, there are real stakes for Brügger in this masquerade, including life and limb.

Frankly, Ambassador would be hilarious if it was a feature narrative, but as a documentary, it is rather staggering. The wholesale government corruption Brügger captures on film is widespread and pervasive. While some blame for the country’s lawlessness and desperate poverty is laid at the feet of their former colonial power, the good old French, there is truly no excuse for such dire conditions to exist in a country so richly blessed with mineral resources. Clearly, something is rotten in the failed state of CAR, and Liberia is hardly any better.

Looking like a character from a Graham Greene novel, Brügger plays his part to the hilt. Unlike Red Chapel, where the director was in a constant on-screen dialogue with the viewers and his co-conspirators in his attempt to punk the North Korean regime, Brügger largely stays in character throughout Ambassador. His neck is also on the line when things get dodgy.

Had a conventional Michael Moore-inspired doc-grinder tackled this subject, they simply would have ambushed the receptionist at Liberia’s UN mission and claimed a great moral victim when the low level employee could not discuss their countries diplomatic personnel in the CAR chapter and verse. Brügger puts them to shame. (This specifically includes the Yes Men.) Until they start challenging the kind of people who can make them disappear, on their home turf, they are not worthy of carrying Brügger’s cigarette holder. Another have-to-see-it-to-believe-it film from the muckraking provocateur, The Ambassador is very highly recommended when it screens at this year’s Sundance in Park City on Tuesday (1/24), Thursday (1/26), and Friday (1/27), as well as next Saturday (1/28) in Salt Lake.