The Ambassador

Rich Haridy

MIFF: Dutch filmmaker Mads Brugger’s gonzo documentary about the blood diamond trade is audacious, confronting, and highly entertaining.
The Ambassador
In 2009, Dutch filmmaker Mads Brugger travelled to North Korea with a disabled Danish comedian to put on a theatrical show as part of a purported cultural exchange. The resulting film, The Red Chapel, turned out to be a magnificently entertaining and enlightening insight into North Korea and the way that country views mentally and physically handicapped people.

In The Ambassador, Brugger pulls off an even more outlandish and dangerous stunt – this time he travels to Africa and pretends to be a diplomat in order to obtain blood diamonds. Meeting a shady diplomatic ‘facilitator’, Willem Tijssen, Brugger ‘buys’ a position as Liberian diplomat to the Central African Republic (CAR). Upon arriving in the capital he sets about making illegal diamond contacts and establishing a fake match factory business to act as a front.

The Ambassador is undoubtedly a provocative film as Brugger embraces his post-colonial role-play with an enthusiasm that will offend many. Dressed in knee-high leather boots, a cheap suit and constantly chewing a cigar, Brugger is a pitch perfect stereotype. When he decides that his match factory should be staffed by Pygmies because “they have the best wizards,” he manages to arrange an official visit to a tribe resulting in a shockingly confronting sequence where he watches the tribe dance, shaded by his umbrella-holding African assistant and comments, “You can really have fun in Africa!”

On a level of gonzo journalism, The Ambassador, shot mostly with hidden cameras and common digital SLRs, is a remarkably successful enterprise. While some will view Brugger’s methods as exploitative and genuinely unkind (creating the false hope of jobs in a small village from his fictional match factory, for example) the discomfort these moments create in the viewer is intentional. As Brugger clearly states, this is happening constantly all over Africa, so if this story bothers you, then good – it should!

As with any great documentary, questions of truthful representation arise frequently throughout The Ambassador and a frustratingly brief conclusion is the film’s most notable flaw. The impression that the film itself is hiding something from the viewer becomes all too clear, which will again irritate some audiences. I found it in line with the Gonzo nature of the whole enterprise and those willing to do further research on the film will only come across a rabbit hole of accusations and denials (Willem Tijssen, the diplomatic trader featured in the film, is notably critical of Brugger online, even going so far as claiming that Brugger financed the film from the illegal diamonds he acquired while in CAR).

Call it what you will – fiction, document, journalism, practical joke, or even simply a how-to guide for acquiring blood diamonds – The Ambassador is a grand achievement. Brugger fills his film with so many fascinatingly absurd and evocative moments (from a cleverly constructed, tense visit to an illegal diamond mind to the strikingly surreal scene where he plays whale sounds for his Pygmy assistants) that the entire experience is magnetically captivating. Sure to be divisive, The Ambassador is one of the most fascinating films of the year.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5

The Ambassador
Director: Mads Brugger
Denmark, 2011, 93 minutes

Melbourne International Film Festival
August 2 – 19

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Rich Haridy is a freelance, Melbourne-based film critic,  Melbourne University Masters student, and Chair of the Australian Film Critics Association. His writing can be found on the Quickflix blog and his own website, Rich On Film; he also co-hosts the film debate show, The Parallax Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @RichonFilm