There aren’t really secret meetings in the dark where yellow-toothed, pot-bellied murderers hand over blood diamonds to diplomats after selling their enslaved wives to Islamic leaders, right? Sad news: it’s all real, and 'The Ambassador' has the...
Turns out those “unknown forces” that seem to drop down out of nowhere into some unstable country and propagate destruction, decimation, violence, and extreme chaos aren’t so mysterious after all. We may have had a sense that Central Africa’s issues have a little something to do with natural resources and disempowered natives, but until Danish journalist Mads Brügger came along, there wasn’t much way to track or understand, let alone laugh our asses off at such slippery corruption. Brügger, posing as a decadantly awkward egotistical dilettante looking to become a big shot, purchased a Liberian diplomatic appointment through the black market. With this paperwork, he played the crafty part of Mads Cortzen, businessman/crook with “other agendas” (wink, wink, diamond mining) in Central Africa. Secretly documenting the entire journey with video cameras, in his final product, an engrossing and appalling and darkly hilarious film called The Ambassador, we see, with a certain amount of horror, that he played his part to the hilt, never missing a beat when it came time to hand over “envelopes of happiness” in order to further exploit the land and the people of the CAR. From heads of security to government leaders, from regular people trying to get by to tribal members still operating according to tradition, everyone is seduced by a toxic combo of real cash and false hope.
You hear about this shit and hope that maybe, somehow, it isn’t true. There aren’t really secret meetings in the dark where yellow-toothed, pot-bellied murderers posing as government officials hand over blood diamonds to diplomats right after selling their enslaved wives to Islamic leaders, right? Sad news: it’s all real, and The Ambassador has the footage to prove it. It's exposed so much corruption, in fact, that the president of Liberia is attempting to have him extradited back to Liberia and arrested. It’s something to watch twice, it’s so packed full of information that comes so quickly with such shocking force. We did just that and still had more questions, so we tracked down Mads Brugger to answer them for us.
VICE: It gets really tricky exposing corruption and the dark side of some human nature via art. I think about Guillermo Vargas, the visual artist who led people to believe he'd starved a dog to death in a gallery while tons of people looked on and no one tried to free it. Supposedly he "didn't really do it," much in the same way you "didn't really do" what you did, as it was to prove a point. What do you think?
Mads Brügger: Given the fine line between "not really doing it" and "doing it for real," I would say that I crossed pretty far into doing it for real. The fact that the president of Liberia, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, has asked to have me arrested and extradited to Liberia, says it all, I think. Also, I am a fully licensed diamond dealer in the Central African Republic, and I do believe I still own part of a diamond mine in the CAR. Actually becoming a diplomat instead of playing one was what attracted me to this project, because it would bring me beyond role-playing. At the end of the day, whether you liked the film or not, you would have to agree: He is the consul of Liberia. Which makes it much more interesting.
Liberia did not have diplomatic relations with the Central African Republic, which is where I wanted to make the film. But it was a coincidence, really. For a long time I was in the loop to become a trade attaché for Vanuatu, the Pacific island state, and I also was groomed to become a consul for the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. But in the end Liberia seemed like the right choice, and it has been a true pleasure representing the country. I really like their national slogan: "The love of freedom brought us here."
It seems like the cameras must've been pretty evident or out in the open at times. Did anyone say anything to you about this?
I guess this is why some people think it’s a mocumentary. What did the trick was a Canon EOS camera, which shoots high-grade video but looks like a traditional still camera, and in a Central African context is perceived as such. Furthermore, I would tell the Africans that my photographer was my "press officer," because anything you can attach "officer" to in francophone Africa is swanky and great. I said I had hired him to document my exploits as I went about victorious in the CAR, and they didn't care, really. Hence we could film situations that in theory should be very much off-limits to the camera.
Was there a point at which you actually believed the role you were playing? I'm not sure who was "in" on it.
My secretary Maria (her real name is Eva, and she is also the production manager of the film) and I were the only ones who were in on it, and yes, because the role-playing was so extreme, so over the top, and because you have to be in character all the time, you start to become your character. There certainly were moments when driving around with my business partner, the diamond mine owner Monsieur Gilbert, and my two pygmy assistants, when I had this intoxicating feeling that I was really doing great as a super diamond consul, and maybe this was really what I was destined to do. Which is kind of psychotic, I think.
I’d agree, that is a bit psycho. Were you sincere anywhere in this film? I almost feel like hidden very deep inside this project you were, in a certain way, teaching some of the Africans who to look out for and maybe even how to protect themselves.
I think so, yes. The scene in the film where I lecture about how the Africans should keep their natural resources for themselves instead of selling everything to China is something I really believe in.
It is alarming what China’s got going on over there. You called this out and also blew open quite a few stories. Which was most disturbing to you?
Most disturbing is to realize how fragile and exposed countries such as Liberia and the CAR are. We think of them as countries with functioning states, but they are so extremely dysfunctional that a character such as Mr. Cortzen can easily rape it within weeks. So what will happen when the real Mr. Cortzen comes to town? Because he does exist, I believe. That is very scary, I think.
What was your goal when you started this project? Almost seems like you were curious to see how far you could take it.
I’m very much a "let’s see what happens" filmmaker. In this case: Let’s see what happens if we purchase a diplomatic title and go all the way with it. Who will we meet, what kind of environments will I end up in, what will happen, etc. For me, the diplomatic title was a ticket to a very closed world you never get to see in the generic Africa documentary, which is the upper echelons of a failed African state.
What was it like to live with yourself through all of this? There were several disturbing, disrespectful elements at play, and I found myself at times almost despising you. Though I know if you stopped and tried to "fix" one aspect of the whole crooked racket, you'd probably get killed, and wouldn't have exposed the depth of what's really there.
Exactly. It’s very much a case of either you go all in, or you don't go at all. I had to be sure to keep my character as consistent as possible, which meant that I could not afford any off-character actions, no matter how despicable a person I merged myself into. At the same time, I do enjoy playing a crook; it is something that comes natural to me.
So are you in any sort of protection program now? What's up with Liberia wanting you to come back there and face charges?
Living in Denmark is like being in a protection program. I think Ellen Johnson is using me to divert attention away from herself and all the accusations she is facing about nepotism and corruption. It’s a classic case of blaming the messenger.
The Ambassador opens in theaters nationally tomorrow, Wednesday, August 29; on Friday and Saturday, August 31 and September 1, Mads Brügger attends screenings in Los Angeles at Cinefamily.