Called the most provocative filmmaker in the world by many, Danish documentarian Mads Brügger has outdone himself with his newest work, The Ambassador. Traversing the corrupt politics of Africa, the journalist finds himself becoming a ‘colonial dandy’ to discover just how easy it is to acquire blood diamonds and befriend the highest of government officials.
Speaking with us as part of his press tour through Drafthouse Films, Mads helps explain the dire situation in the landlocked Central African Republic as well as his process transforming into a bona fide diplomat. Whether you think him provocative or not, you can’t deny he isn’t the most dedicated.
The Film Stage: To start off I wanted to see why you decided to choose Africa as your film’s subject. It obviously affords you the opportunity to infiltrate the system that you’re exposing, but was there a personal stake in this type of corruption or was it just a great journalistic opportunity for you?
Mads Brügger: More the latter, I would say.
But it was also my ambition to revitalize this genre of African documentaries as such, because I find it appalling that a lot of well-meaning and important documentaries are being made about Africa but no one wants to see these films anymore because they are unbearable to watch. So I thought if I could make a genre-changing Africa documentary I could cause some debate and stir up some interest.
Which I believe is why we are having this conversation.
With everything in your demeanor, your wardrobe, your language—it seems that it needs to be so precise to win these people over. How long did it take to prepare that persona? Did you mold it after someone from your research?
Well, I worked on crafting the character of Mr. Cortzen on and off for a couple of years, actually. I was constantly on the lookout for details which could emphasize my character or make it more credible. I would read books about diplomatic etiquette. I went to receptions at embassies in Copenhagen on the lookout for small tale-tell signs of diplomacy dos and donts and how diplomats carry themselves.
And then I was also very—I thought that I wanted to be a character that would be like a walking hologram of the black fantasy of the ultimate white business diplomat. Because I had an idea that this would open up doors for me. And at the same time there is also a survival strategy, you know—dressing as a colonial dandy because people will think if he is looking like that he has to have a lot of money and he has to be very powerful. And he has to be for real because nobody [in] their right mind would walk around in the Central African Republic dressing like this.
And, you know, in the character there are elements of Tintin, The Phantom, The Man With the Yellow Hat from Curious George. By clearly signaling what kind of Africa I fantasize about and what fetishisms turn me on, I thought I would attract men who subscribe to the same fantasies and the same longings which I think is what explains the weird character gallery in the film.
Yes, I liked how you would always be, “Is this speech okay? Was that okay?” Like kind of second-guessing.
Yeah. Actually, I discovered a famous General Patton quote, “Pressure makes diamonds”. Which would have been becoming for the film if I were to give another speech.
Did you feel you could trust anyone there? Say even your Indian matchstick expert?
No, the Indian matchmaking expert in the film had no idea what I was doing. He was a bonda fide, legitimate Indian matchmaking expert that I had flown in from India to work on the business plans for the match factory and to host the match workshop.
And how about your assistant Maria—she’s kind of a badass pulling no punches in English while Mr. Gilbert and others sit and smile patiently—
She was in on it. She and I are the only ones in the film who knows what’s going on.
Did she have to go through a lot of preparation too?
No, not as much as I. She is also the production manager of the film [and] she’s there to play the role of my secretary which is important for my credibility. And she is Francophone—which I speak [only] broken French.
And that scene at the end where she snaps—that really is her breaking point. She is so fed up with Mr. Gilbert who she considers to be the most despicable human being she has ever met. She could not bear being in the same room as him. [Because] also, [since] she is Francophone she can really understand the finer details of what he is saying and what he is about.
And how about someone like Paul. Did you ever find yourself opening up to him more or were you guarded the entire time?
Paul now knows about the film, which has been a Matrix moment for him. He is in the film because when I went there the first time in 2008 I met Paul by chance and discovered he was a fixer within the diplomatic and expert businessmen communities, that he didn’t have children, and that he wanted to get out of the Central African Republic to go back to a country where he started when he was younger. So I thought this could be an exit for him.
Were you worried—most of the film is done in secret, illegally. Did you ever wonder if you wouldn’t get the footage? The quality that we see is amazing. Were you checking it daily? Did you not know until you returned?
Well, we did look at some of the footage as we went along, but we—one of the only things functioning in the Central African Republic is DHL. So we would ship off hard drives with copies of the material on a weekly basis, but we had a lot of concerns about keeping the footage safe. Every day I thought about what would happen if people of the government would find the material, for instance my talks with the Head of State Security, which could really have landed me problems.
Actually, with that—were you surprised about the revelations of France. I mean, of all the countries involved, France definitely gets put in a bad light with what they do to the CAR.
And deservedly so because—just an example: when they were given independence now fifty-two years ago—I think it was ’67. When they were given their independence their first president-to-be, a man called [Barthélémy] Boganda, he was an intellectual. He was like a black Ghandhi. He had dreams of having the Central African Republic, Cameroon, and the Ivory Coast I think to create a federation of states. He had all sorts of interesting ideas and thoughts and the first thing that happens is that he dies under mysterious circumstances in a plane crash because of a bomb with all things pointing to French Secret Service with maybe collusion with his white wife who basically killed him. That is what all people in the Central African Republic take for granted today. That is the very beginning of the Central African Republic, you know—France killing its first president.
And when you are there you really understand the meaning of the old saying that language is a dialect with an army, which really rings true in regards to France. They have a permanent group of Foreign Legionnaires there which can totally destroy the Central African army within hours. And because of that and this nexus of corruption that ties this regime together with France—they are basically in control.
So, the more you learn about what France is up to and what they have been doing and how many atrocities they have been involved in their former African colonies the more shocked you become, really. Which they also played a very sinister and nefarious role in the genocide in Rwanda.
While writing my review of the film, I went to try that diplomaticpassport.com and I saw that they’ve changed their front page to explain how they are an advisory service [only]. Do you see the film going further than that and instilling change in Africa as well?
Well, I do have my hopes but as of now—I find it interesting that because of the film the media in Liberia have been able to identify eight other Mr. Cortzens within the Liberia consulate and diplomatic corps. Meaning eight other guys who are definitely shady and dodgy. Whether this means the administration of Ellen Johnson or the regime of hers will remove them, I don’t know. But I think that is an improvement.
Uh huh. At least they are looking.
Yes. And I do believe that and I do hope that when the film really comes to Africa that it will stir up debate and discussions Because all Africans know about how corrupt their leaders are but they never get to see it in practical terms. Which they very much [will] with this film.
Did you see a lot of civil unrest where you were or were you kind of in a different world to be able to see it first-hand?
A few days before I arrived in the Central African Republic there had been riots in […] slum areas of Bangui because of political tensions and sentiments running high. While I was there, of course, there was the incident with the skirmishes in the Triangle of Death. A lot of people in Bangui were very worried that the rebels were on the move and that they would attack Bangui, which did not happen but there were definitely people who were really concerned about that because the city is so exposed and the armed forces of the Central African Republic aren’t armed with that much really. Which is also why people within the diplomatic corps in Bangui—you can meet people there who think that within fifteen years the country will no longer exist.
Three months ago there was an attempted state coup done by the nephew of the president [General François Bozizé], [who] was the Minister of Finance [Sylvain Ndoutingai], so it’s the order of the day.
For me, the ultimate mental image of France in the Central African Republic is …
In Bangui, one of the finer restaurants—which is you know relatively speaking—is a place called L’équateur which translates into The Equator where I was having dinner one night. In comes this aging, Silver Fox General of the French Foreign Legion—a high-ranking officer. And he orders raw beef tartare and a glass of red wine. And you know, eating raw beef in the Central African Republic is pretty much the same as playing Russian Roulette with five bullets in the chamber. But he was having it as if it was another day at the office. It’s the most hardcore thing I have ever seen.
How worried were you—you’re meeting the president’s son, you’re meeting all these people in secret. Were tensions high with you especially since it was such a struggle to get the confirmation from Tijsson with your passport?
Yes, when I began dealing with the son of the president my concerns about what will happen if they in the Central African Republic would call Liberia and ask, “Tell us all about your consul”. And they would say, “Well, we don’t know who he is.” That was really something that made me increasingly concerned and paranoid. Also because, as Paul says in the film the more people you meet and talk to, the more you deal with people in power, the more they look at you. The more they ask themselves, “What is this guy about?”
So that was definitely a prolonged period of paranoia.
Now that you’re out and rumors are swirling that they want to arrest you and everything, do you fear extradition? Is that not an issue?
No, that will definitely not happen. At least I hope so. [laughs] You know, Denmark is far away from Liberia and so I feel pretty safe.
I’m sure you get asked this by everyone, but can you tell us what happened to the diamonds?
[laughs] Of course. Actually, Colin Evans told me that the first rule of diplomacy is that diplomats never speak about money. He was very persistent on that.
But what happened with the diamonds was that I had to take them of course—to keep up appearances. But having them without paperwork was really dangerous stuff. So I had to get rid of them quickly. So I would go by myself to sell them to some diamond dealers in Bangui by myself. And it was very much a buyers’ market because they would have the same problems that I had—that there weren’t any papers.
And the money I made I gave to the Pygmies for incorporating the match factory. It’s not in the film because that would be very off character if I suddenly was doing good, but that is what happened.
Do you know anything about the Pygmies now? Is there any way of staying updated with that or did you have to break all ties?
No, I have no idea at all what’s going on. But I’m pretty sure there’s not a match factory.
So what’s next on your slate? You’ve hit North Korea and now the CAR, anything to that level coming next?
Well I am finishing a documentary to [collaborate] with another Danish director. It’s a feature length film about the death of a high-ranking European Union Civil Servant. It’s like a murder-mystery inside the hallways of the Commission. And I am in the film but as myself basically—as a journalist. It is not role-playing as in The Ambassador.
Are you glad to be back to the journalistic Mads?
It’s nice not being an electric pony. You can’t—myself at least—I’m not able to do like a string of The Ambasadors because it is simply too … the amount of stress and paranoia that you have to deal with stays in your body for quite awhile. So you need some relaxation in between.
Well hopefully this press tour is relaxing for you.
Very relaxing. I’m really enjoying it here.
The Ambassador is now VOD and in limited release.