Opening the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam this evening, Mads Brügger's "The Ambassador" is certain to be one of the most discussed documentaries at the festival, as well as scores of documentary festivals to come. Brügger's follow-up to his Sundance Film Festival award winning "The Red Chapel," the film takes the director's remarkably hands on approach to investigative journalism a controversial step further.
In "The Red Chapel," Brügger headed to North Korea with two Danish-Korean comedians under the guise of a cultural exchange.
With "The Ambassador," he makes his way solo to the Central African Republic, posing as a Liberian Consul by simply purchasing a diplomatic passport. Almost exclusively via hidden cameras, the audience watches as Brügger – with remarkable affect – dissappears into the character his new passport has brought forth: With a bizarre, almost Karl Lagerfeldian look, Brügger gives his diplomat the cover story of wanting to open a brand new match factory that will bring lots of jobs to the area. In addition to, of course, being in the midst of an investigation of blood diamonds.
It's a risky setup, but Brügger pulls it off, allowing "The Ambassador" to become a unique entry into the sub-category of documentaries about African politics. How the many people and countries it exposes react as the film starts screening, however, remains to be seen.
The film is already courting controversy as a Dutch businessman depicted in the film (helping Brügger get his passport) has recently gone to the Dutch media and unsuccessfully asked to have the film removed from IDFA.
Brügger said he took on the project because he wanted something that would go "beyond role playing."
"I wanted something that would be the next level," he said. "I think it was in 2007 that I stumbled upon a link to a diplomatic passport brokerage on the internet. After some initial skepticism, I thought if this is really true – if you can actually buy a diplomatic title and become a real diplomat – that would be the ultimate starting point for a documentary about Africa."
Brügger explained that this is because he sees diplomats as a sort of "super journalist."
"They can talk to everybody and have access to everybody," he said. "They have access to state secrets and circle of power. But they also enjoy a tremendous amount of prestige and protection because of their title. For a long time I had been toying with the idea of making a documentary in Africa which would – in as many ways as possible – depart from the generic Africa documentary. So I thought this could be it, if I could manage it."
Not formally trained as a filmmaker, Brügger considers "The Ambassador" just as much an example of his primary profession, journalism.
"Most of my life I have been working as a journalist," he said. "Journalism is really the foundation of my work as a filmmaker… And I think of this film as journalism at it's best. And also documentary making as it is meant to be. Shining light on areas that you can not easily gain access to and uncovering abuse of power in the higher echelons of society. That is what journalism is really about. In many places in the world journalists can no longer operate. Mexico, China, Russia… Many parts of Africa. Journalists are killed, harrassed, imprisoned… So if journalism is to reinvent itself, it's necessary to think radically and alternatively."