Mads Brugger is sort of the VICE magazine version of Sasha Baron Cohen, as financed by Lars Von Trier. His last film was The Red Chapel, an exercise in hidden camera comedy with unusual socio-political stakes, which I put on my top 10 list for 2010.
In Chapel, Danish journalist Brugger posed as the director of an experimental theater troupe made up of two Danish-Korean comedians, one of them severely developmentally disabled, on a “cultural exchange” trip to Pyongyang. Unbeknown to their North Korean hosts, the whole thing was a front, an excuse to smuggle cameras into a closed state.
That Brugger and his crew pulled it off with no evident consequences is, some would say, a testament to Brugger's genius, both as a performer and as a conductor of contexts for those performances. Others have suggested the fact that he's still alive and working is a red flag that his “documentaries” are fully faked.
If Chapel was the document of a fiction created for the purpose of capturing a kind of truth filmable under no other means, his hilarious, troubling new film The Ambassador (like Chapel, produced by Von Trier's Zentropa) is the same, but on a much grander scale, in a much more visibly dangerous setting and with an even trickier relationship to absolute truth.
“Here ends my life as a Danish journalist,” Brugger declares via voiceover during the film's prologue, heralding the start of “a life where I can operate beyond all moral boundaries” — that is, the life of a diplomat in Africa, a decadent Westerner plundering a third-world nation. That narration is so droll, his onscreen embrace of the prank so total that those who aren't familiar with Brugger's work may not realize he is, in fact, playing a character. Unlike The Red Chapel, in which Mads and his cohorts would drop the facade when away from their Korean hosts (and sometimes in front of them, by speaking to one another in Danish) and Brugger's narration constantly reminded of the purpose behind the prank, here whenever Mads is on screen, he's in disguise.
He has to be, in order to infiltrate a number of closed systems at once. First he introduces us to the world of underground diplomatic title brokerage. (Maybe not so underground: one of Mads' sources, Colin Evans, is the proprietor of DiplomaticPassport.com, which today, two months after The Ambassador's world premiere at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, bears a disclaimer on its front page: “We DO NOT sell diplomatic passports.”) For a six-figure outlay, Brugger is promised a Liberian passport, drivers license and honorary degree, as well as a post as the Liberian ambassador to the Central African Republic.
As Brugger tells it, the CAR is a lawless state ruled by a sham criminal government, whose relations with other nations are on a pay-to-play basis — making it a “magnet for white men with hidden agendas.” It's also a land extraordinarily rich in minerals and gems — particularly diamonds, although there is oil in the country's “triangle of death” bordering Chad and the Sudan — and its resources guarantee the continued interest of former colonial parent France, as well as a new-to-the-region would-be imperial exploiter, China.
Soon after arriving in the CAR, Mads tells his local consigliere, who doesn't appear to be in on the Dane's true identity as a investigative filmmaker-journalist, that he believes Africa to be the site of a cold war between China and the West, and “not to be racist, but I have a problem with Asian people” — a calculated play on local hostility to the foreigners who seek to pillage the land.
His stated goal is to use cash and his perceived position to strike deals with diamond miners, and use his fake diplomatic immunity to smuggle the diamonds out of the country, all the while fronting an interest in building legit industry in the region by developing a match factory partially staffed by pygmies.
But Brugger knows he's never going to build a factory, and he knows telling local peasants that he's going to give them jobs that are never going to materialize is a shitty thing to do. Via voiceover, he admits to “giving these people a false sense of hope. But diplomats do this every day.” In other words, he would arouse suspicion if he didn't exploit the penniless people while profiting from alliances with their thug oppressors.
His real goal is to get footage of the social and political structures that would allow all of this to happen. Much of that footage appears to have been taken surreptitiously, via cameras artfully hidden in books or on lapels. Several times, Brugger cuts in footage of those cameras being set up, drawing our attention to the scene as a set-up, a staged fiction for the purpose of obtaining information.
Like Chapel, after a rollicking first act, The Ambassador slows considerably, becoming bogged down with Brugger's struggles to sustain the scam in the face of major obstacles. And both films come to endings that, despite Brugger's attempts to wrap up loose ends via voiceover, are in a sense necessarily unresolved and inconclusive: these movies are only “finished” when those who appear in them but weren't in on the filming discover they exist, and react accordingly.
How many of The Ambassador's subjects were truly oblivious to the filming? Could Brugger really be that good of an actor? He's certainly created a hell of a character. With a wardrobe blending pocket squares, riding boots, a cigarette holder and aviator shades, he seems to have found a stylistic middle-ground between Hunter S. Thompson and Erich von Stroheim — fitting for a film that's both a work of gonzo journalism, and an epic production starring its director.
From those following my own experiment, the question I've been asked most is, “how are you choosing movies?” My methodology is, shall we say, less than scientific. The most important thing for me is to try to be guided by curiosity, rather than nebulous outside influences, or my own stubborn biases, or a feeling of obligation. The main thing I'm doing is scheduling based on logistics. I have so far stuck to press and industry screenings, as they all take place in the same location; travel is a huge time suck in snowy Park City, and if I stay in the same general area, I can simply see more movies.
Other than that, I'm making a concerted effort to sample films that I would probably avoid under usual circumstances, as well as films I know literally nothing about. Is it working? So far I've seen seven films. Three were at least interesting; the others were, uh, not. So, so far, it's a lot like every other Sundance. Here's hoping the blow-me-out-of-the-water ringer pops up tomorrow.