The Ambassador

Satirist and filmmaker Mads Brügger talks about going undercover to infiltrate the African blood diamond business

Traveling by boat

Traveling by boat

In The Ambassador, a documentary which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last week, Danish journalist Mads Brügger procures an ambassadorship in Liberia and uses his diplomatic freedoms to infiltrate the blood diamond business. He pays a diplomatic title brokerage $135,000 and, with his newly minted ambassador title, travels to the Central African Republic under the pretense of building a match factory. His real mission is to capture the murky dealings of the country’s diamond industry on camera. This is Brügger ’s second stunt documentary. In his first, The Red Chapel, he traveled to North Korea as part of a phony theater troupe—affording a rare look at inner workings of the communist regime. The intrepid journalist spoke with Outside about his risky seven-week operation in Africa.

It’s astonishing that you pulled this off. Were you surprised that you got as far as you did?
Yes. What was surprising was that I used my father’s name, but if you really deliberately and methodically Googled [the name], you will eventually find out that I’m a filmmaker. I was really afraid that that would happen at one point or another, but nothing ever happened.

Why did you keep the name?

I had to, for these passports for the diplomatic title brokers. They want proof of your identity, so I had to give them a copy of my Danish passport and so on. But you know, it’s what Kenneth Anger says in Hollywood Babylon, that whatever will make the most money will happen. And if you have a lot of money, anything can happen in Africa.

Why did you decide to make the film?

First of all, I thought in the genre of hybrid role-play films, it would be the next level. Instead of playing a diplomat, I would actually become a diplomat, which raises the stakes significantly and makes everything much more interesting. Also because by becoming a diplomat, I would gain access to a very closed world that you seldom hear anything about. I speculated it would be possible to document and describe the power circles and the kingpins in a failed African state and by doing so, making a very genre-shaking Africa documentary.

You were going undercover in a country where diamond businessmen get assassinated. Were you on edge the whole time?

Of course there were moments of great concern and paranoia, but once paranoia and great concern is a permanent state of mind, you start to relax in a strange kind of way. Also, when I involve myself in role-playing as extreme as this, I become what I’m portraying. Which is a way of surviving the ordeal, but that actually also makes it fun.

Did you break out of character when you were alone?

This sounds very schizophrenic, but I was in character all the time. That’s because the hotel where I had my consulate is like the [hot spot] of Bangui for powerful people. They all come to the hotel for meetings and drinks and affairs with their mistresses and so on, and because I was there all the time I had to be in character all the time.

Were there any moments where you were sure you’d be discovered?

A very interesting moment is when I had a reception at my consulate, and one of the guests was a military intelligencer officer from a detachment of South African soldiers who are stationed in the Central African Republic. This man deals directly with President Bozize and so was very influential. He was at the reception and I was trying to keep him at arm’s length, because it is his job finding out about characters such as me. And then he approaches me and says, “Mr. Ambassador, I need to have a confidential talk with you.” And I’m thinking, “This is the end.” We go to a suite next door and he says, “Ambassador, I know you cannot comment on this, but I will say so anyway. I believe that you have all the hallmark characteristics of a highly-seasoned leader of intelligence service, which I believe you are.” And I’m saying, well thank you, I cannot comment on it, but it takes one to know one. And then we laughed in this snobbish kind of way and went back to the reception. Even though it was a harrowing moment, it also made me very proud because it was the ultimate compliment.

In your last documentary, The Red Chapel, you went undercover in North Korea. Which documentary felt more dangerous to shoot?

It’s difficult to compare them. In a way, [The Ambassador] feels riskier because in a place such as this, it is so unpredictable what will happen next. You are having whisky sour cocktails with the son of the president. Ten minutes later you could find yourself in a torturer’s dungeon. Not because of something you have said or done, but because somebody told the president’s son something about you which may not even be true. There is no causality principle in the Central African Republic, which makes it quite a challenge to be there.

Did you have a game plan going in, or were you winging it?

I think in terms of situations. I knew I was going to make the matches factory [as a front for his diamond business], and that I had this Indian guy flying in. I knew that I was going to invest in a diamond mine with Monsieur Gilbert. These are the main anchors of the film, and everything else I more or less left to chance.

How much of this was shot on hidden cameras?

Most of the meetings I had in my consulate office is hidden cameras, but when dealing with the Africans, most of the Central Africans didn’t mind. We were filming on this Canon EOS. They look like still cameras. They shoot very high-grade HD. And for a Central African person, that does not in any way relate to film or television-making—they thought Johan [the interpreter] was kind of an amateur—I would tell them in the beginning that he was my press officer, because it sounds swanky, and that he was documenting my exploits and endeavors. But they didn’t care really, so I stopped explaining. And they totally ignored him. So we were able to film scenes where I was thinking, “How come they don’t say anything about the camera?” Even things where Monsieur Gilbert would say, “What’s going on here is very secret. If anyone finds out we’ll all go to jail.” While he’s saying so, the camera is right next to his face. They don’t care. They’re not that media-savvy. Or maybe they are—maybe they are at the next level.

You finally get your hands on some diamonds towards the end of the film, but you don’t reveal what happens to them. Were you worried about implicating yourself?
It’s because I don’t want to take the mystery out of the film. I had to take the diamonds when Monsieur Gilbert brought them to me, to keep up appearances. But I had to get rid of them as fast as possible, because if I were to be stopped by the mining police and they would find them, biblical punishment would rain down on me. So I took them and went alone to a diamond dealer outfit in Bangui, which is run by some Syrian-Armenians, and sold the diamonds to them. So I actually became a diamond dealer, and the money I made I gave to the pygmies to incorporate the match factory.

Can I ask how much money you sold them for?

It wasn’t a seller’s market because I didn’t have the papers — [the buyers] would also have a problem with these diamonds. So I might have made ten thousand dollars?

Some people have expressed skepticism about the authenticity of the film. They think it’s staged, or at least partly staged.

The only thing in the film which is fiction is me and Eva, my assistant, because she is also the production manager of the film. Everyone else is real. Nothing has been staged. Everybody is what they are. It is not a mockumentary, so apart from myself and Eva, it’s really as pure a documentary as you can make. But I understand why they think so, because a lot of the characters in the film are almost like comic book heroes and villains. Monsieur Gilbert and the head of the secret service, they are this close to cliché. If it was a feature film and you would show up with a person such as Monsieur Gilbert, with a machete scar and a gold tooth, you would say this is too much, you have to tone it down.

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