License to Steal — The Ambassador
The Ambassador (Mads Bruggen, Denmark, 2011, 93 minutes) is a documentary that stands Graham Greene, V. S. Naipaul and Joseph Conrad on their heads. Think of it as Apocalypse Now–LITE, with a laugh-track and no ending, in which no one is challenged by a conscience.
Watching a professional comedian from Denmark travel as an ambassador to an African failed state from a neighboring near-failed state, you feel that the atmosphere of anarchy shaped by corruption and greed couldn’t be farther from any notion of civilization. Watching it as conventioneers in Tampa funded by a gambling mogul preach a gospel that decrees that the rich in a rich country aren’t rich enough, it makes you wonder.
Mads Brugger, the John Stewart of Denmark, has a scam. He buys an ambassadorship from Liberia to the Central African Republic, a place rich in natural resources that was exploited by France and then exploited by a president for life who declared himself emperor. If you think it’s on the upswing, think again. There’s too much uranium here to keep the sharks away.
For those of you who don’t follow Danish docs, Brugger’s previous film was Red Chapel, a wry twist on the road movie, in which two Korean-born performers (adopted into Danish culture as children) travel through North Korea on a good will tour that stretches the bounds of almost everything, including hospitality, bad taste, and theater. No surprise, the North Korean hosts don’t get the joke.
The Ambassador suggests that Brugger’s appetite for outrage is infinite.
The poker-faced brazen Brugger is playing a role as he enters the country to open a match factory (staffed by pygmies, whom he gets roaring drunk for the inauguration of the place). No one else is playing a character, unless you consider corrupt duplicity by officials playing a role. His character’s real goal is to corner a position in the diamond trade, not a place where you find too much nobility, at least not in central Africa.
You might say he’s entering today’s heart of darkness, yet most of The Ambassador shows people cheating each other in smoked-filled hotel rooms where the lights are working. )Yes, people even violate the no smoking rules in Bangui, the Central African Republic’s capital.) Here the industry is looting, but minus the slash and burn. We don’t see any of the wars that are tearing Africa apart. For that, see War Witch, the Berlinale winner this year, set in the battle-ravaged Congo.
What we do see is corruption as diplomacy by other means. When the audience isn’t holding its nose in near-disgust at rampant greed, it will be laughing out loud. Brugger never lets propriety or any journalistic notion of fairness get in the way of grotesquery here. The Ambassador is merciless satire, boarding on the decadent, too far beyond the bounds of decency to get nominated for an Academy Award. All the more reason to see it when it’s screening near you.