Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 20, 2012 4:39 pm 
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"The Ambassador" is a stretch. "The fake minor diplomat" wouldn't sound so good though.

This latest exploit of Mads Brügger, whom a festival blurb described as "between Michael Moore and Borat" in connection with his (more interesting) 2010 North Korean adventure, Red Chapel, is designed to show how easy it is to assume a fake identity and get diplomatic papers in order to deal blood diamonds in Africa. And he does this, sort of. He shaves his head, dons sharp suits (sort of) with handkerchiefs, ties, starched shirts, cuff links, big ring, aviator sunglasses and riding boots, puffs on cigars and purveys caviar and champagne, and, thus accoutered, poses as a "businessman diplomat." He pays bribes and deals with government agents and the owner of a diamond mine, pretending as cover to be setting up a match factory, and all these dealings he has filmed secretly. In pretending to start the match factory he claims to encourage local industry against the exploitation of the French and the newly encroaching Chinese and employing (token) pygmies as truly local help. The match factory being a scam, probably leaves a dozen or two non-pygmies also feeling badly scammed. But his excuse is, diplomats scam people all the time. He makes some racist remarks, supposedly to lure locals into his confidence, and that may offend film viewers. But it's all part of the game. And there is always the possibility that we're being scammed too, somewhat, at least.

The process begins in Europe, where Brügger talks to two people who actually specialize in brokering diplomatic papers for African countries, Brit Colin Evans and Dutchman Willem Tijssen. That this is not legal only makes it more expensive; but it can be done because so many African governments are so dicey. The deal he settles on is to get a diplomatic passport in Liberia, and set up to do business in the Central African Republic, a place that has diamonds and gold (as well as some oil), and not much stable government or rule of law. It's open season there, apparently. Brüggers pays out a lot of cash (presumably funded by Lars von Trier as was his last film) and is promised a Liberian passport, drivers license and honorary degree, as well as a post as the Liberian ambassador to the Central African Republic. He gets the drivers license, and what serves for a while as a passport; it may not be valid, he learns later. Nor do his ambassadorial duties ever really develop. But how would they? The CAR is a lawless state anyway. Tijssen, who seems to have been the major agent in providing Brüggers with Liberian credentials, has protested his unauthorized inclusion in the film and tried to block it from being shown, but he has not proven his innocence and Bruggers has said, “If Tijssen were my PR agent, then I’d say ‘Good work!’”

Nonetheless, in the process of almost setting himself up to be a dealer in blood diamonds, Brügger, who is called "Mr. Cortzen" because his real full name is Mads Brügger Cortzen and that's on his new diplomatic passport, meets with a government functionary who also owns a diamond mine, the head of CAR secret service, who is French and later disappears, to the Indian consul, and eventually several high government officials. He visits the diamond mine, a somewhat dangerous trip on a small plane, and he arranges to have two pygmy assistants whom he declares are the only people he can trust -- because he thinks his translator is in league with the diamond mine owner. Meanwhile it turns out his Liberian passport may not be valid, and the Liberians never grant him the necessary accompanying documents, nor can the European who sold the passport for him help. He is warned by the Indian consul that if he buys a lot of diamonds his diplomatic status won't count once word goes out and he'll be lucky to get a big fine and have the diamonds seized at the airport -- lucky to get out alive.

So this is really the kind of operation that would require more experienced, tougher, more devious, richer men than Mads Brügger, and would take years to set up. But "Mr. Cortzen" goes through the motions, and all the dealings, all the uncertainties and worries, notably about getting the necessary diplomatic papers, are filmed secretly, and in The Ambassador we get to see them. One interpretation is that Brügger aims to appear to be a sucker, to show off the veniality of those he's dealing with. And that may be true. But most of the time it merely appears he is trying to succeed at the game, only the large sum he paid to the diplomatic passport broker wasn't enough, and he doesn't have the right connections all along the line. His contract with M. Gilbert, the functionary who is also the diamond mine owner, is not accepted by the government, and vice versa. Is he trying to fail or is he just doomed to fail? It's a tough call. But we must bear in mind that if he truly failed he might meet with the same fate as the French head of CAR security, whom he secretly interviewed, but who later was assassinated -- like his predecessor, it turns out. Why did he take the job? Brügger barely scratches the surface of the craziness here.

This is an elaborate put-on, and it illustrates that such things do happen. And Brüggers has entered the world in which they do. However, this is a less interesting film than Red Chapel for various reasons. In Red Chapel, Brüggers, with several others, posing as a cultural mission, bringing an experimental theater troupe, travels around North Korea, and films a place that western journalists rarely get a chance to see. The Ambassador, on the other hand, mainly just shows Brügger himself parading around in his semi-colonial outfits, making semi-racist remarks, telling a Hitler joke, and talking to various functionaries -- and pygmies. Actually the pygmies don't say much. The world of blood diamonds is corrupt, but we kind of knew that.

The Ambassador had its North American debut at Sundance, where Red Chapel was a hit. It has also been in some other festivals. It was watched for this review as part of the MoMA-Film Society of Lincoln Center series, New Directors/New Films, and its days and times of public screening for this series are as follows:

Friday, March 30th | 9 PM | MoMA
Saturday, March 31st | 3:45 PM | FSLC

Tijssen has protested his inclusion -- even emailing me -- and tried to block the film from being shown, but Bruggers has said, “If Tijssen were my PR agent, then I’d say ‘Good work!’”

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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