Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Is everything African for sale? Brügger's THE AMBASSADOR makes you wonder....

The popular, mid-20th-Century term "darkest Africa" takes on added meaning as you watch the new and pretty ugly (in all ways from subject matter to execution) documentary, THE AMBASSADOR from Danish provocateur Mads Brügger. With enough shaky hand-held camerawork to drive you up the wall and no particular visual acumen in terms of what or how to shoot, the movie looks drab, even when it's observing some nice scenery. This, however, is as nothing compared to the film's story and subject: the "purchasing" of ambassadorships, together with the food-chain low-lifes who make this happen -- both inside and outside of the Central African Republic (CAR) and its environs, where much of the movie takes place.

The "Ambassador" of the title is Mr. Brügger himself, above in close-up, posing as a certain Mr. Cortzen (our guy refers to this as "performance journalism"), a fellow who literally purchases his Ambassadorship. But not from a mere one man. No, there's a whole line of fellows (and a gal or two) along the way who facilitate this "buy," starting with the man who makes the initial connection so that Cortzen can meet two sets of bigwigs: those in the country whose Ambassador he is going to be (usually, but not always, an African one) and those in the CAR, where he will be stationed.

Why would anyone want a job like this? Well, diamonds (above), for a start, which these Ambassadors tend to trade in, taking them out of the country relatively risk-free because of their diplomatic immu-nity. Brügger/Cortzen first tries to buy an introduction from one fellow whose price is too steep, and then goes to another who's cheaper. (Turns out, you get what you pay for.) Finally he is connected to a man who owns or runs a diamond mine but who proves about as unreliable as everyone else in this documentary.

Once our man has ingratiated himself with the bigwigs and the locals, it helps to have some sort of "plan" which will help the coun-try in which he's stationed. Our guy comes up with the idea of star-ting a match factory (not a bad idea, actually), and perhaps using the local pygmy population (above and below) to man the factory.

Along the way, there is a nagging question of the Ambassadorship being stalled because the President of Liberia (one Ellen Johnson) is "away," then "can't sign," then "won't sign," then silence. There are all sorts of other questions, too, some coming from those involved in this process, some from "our" guy as "Ambassador," and some from our guy as film director. One early question is where is the money coming from for all these bribes Brügger/Cortzen must put out? The press material tells that Lars von Trier's Zentropa production company financed all this, but I don't recall being told that in the movie (I might have missed that moment, however).

Other questions come into play throughout -- such as what will happen to the match factory and the pygmies, once this whole hoax is unmasked? At one point Brügger tells us (and whoever he is speaking to) that he feels badly about all this -- because, of course, no factory and no employment is going to happen. Well, isn't that nice. Still, whatever it takes to make your documentary, right? For a time the movie seems to be treading ground traveled by A l'origine (click and scroll down). But, no. That real-life character/con-man turned out to be more interested in the welfare of his townspeople than is our Mr. Brügger/Cortzen.

The Ambassador does raise some unpleasant questions about diplomacy, culture, colonialism, ethics, and the like. The French, bless 'em, come in for quite a bit of condemnation; after viewing the film, you're likely to wonder if they're not among Europe's sleaziest. Brügger himself has got to be viewed as pretty brave for sticking his neck out in the manner. One of the men (the head of security for CAR, I believe) whom he interviews and uses in his film -- most of which seems to have been shot surreptitiously -- was assassinated midway through the making of the movie, for reasons that are never explained or perhaps even known. (This surreptitious filming certainly excuses some of the lack of quality in the film-making.)

While the whole idea of this movie is shocking and disgusting, the movie itself is only cursorily engaging, due to the fact that Brügger is much more of a provocateur than a filmmaker. You admire his chutzpah, and agree that, yes, this is a terrible thing that is going on. But as a movie-maker he isn't able to build up much suspense or excitement, and any laughs there might be mostly catch in your throat. And almost everything is left up in the air at the finale. (You'll have tons of questions at this point in the game.) It's all dark, and considering everything we see (or don't see), it's pretty pointless, too.

From Drafthouse Films, The Ambassador, with a running time of 93 minutes, arrives Wednesday, August 29, in New York City at the IFC Center. In the weeks to follow it will play in several other cities around the country. Click here to see all currently-scheduled playdates.

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