For those unfamiliar with the work of documentary filmmaker Mads Brügger, he combines the nest-poking intentions of a Morgan Spurlock, the invented personas of a Sacha Baron Cohen and the lilting narration of a Werner Herzog. Previously the brains behind 2010’s “The Red Chapel,” in which he infiltrated North Korea, Brügger has now set his sights on the diamond-smuggling exploits of Central Africa with “The Ambassador.”
The Dane is out to expose the process by which often white businessmen purchase diplomatic papers from outside parties (to the tune of $135,000 USD) in order to become an inscrutable -- if not merely unscrupulous -- figure on behalf of any number of war-torn countries and subsequently travel through customs elsewhere with relative ease, carrying either large sums of money there or valuable amounts of diamonds back.
Of course, it’s a tricky trade, where bribes are important (delivered in “envelopes of happiness"), but the paper isn’t nearly as vital as the paperwork that it buys. Everyone in Liberia (for which Brügger is serving as consul) and the Central African Republic (“If the Congo was the heart of darkness, then it was the appendix”) is there to make a buck, and even certain European nations see to it that their interests abroad remain protected from outsiders looking to set up so much as a match factory in their prized part of the world (as our man attempts to do).
What Brügger captures with his sometimes rather ideally hidden cameras is a well-oiled system of modern colonialism, with his M.O. primarily consisting of dropping into this region under the guise of civility and commerce and screwing with individuals who screw one another over for a living until he finally risks being screwed over by them himself, or worse. "If you’re not at the table," he’s warned, "then you’re on the menu," and the result is a frequently amusing exploration of the dual frustrations of deep-seated corruption and dizzying bureaucracy that carries the pretense of provocative investigative journalism.
However, as the film goes on, that very pretense lacks any sense of righteous indignation behind it towards the circumstances that locals now find themselves contending with. The opening titles are set to The Ink Spots’ “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire,” and that admission seems to be part of the problem. The emphasis on his droll deception of the rich and greedy ultimately gives the film all the weight of an elaborate, expensive prank; when in doubt, mock pygmies, mention Hitler and chalk the lack of a satisfying on-screen resolution to the secrecy of the realm that the filmmakers had otherwise been determined to unveil.
To perhaps more aptly compare this documentary stunt to those diamonds in the rough on which Brügger is so eager to get his hands, "The Ambassador" has its fair share of sharp angles, but it falls shy of being a true gem.
“The Ambassador” is currently available On Demand and opens in select cities beginning on August 29th.