Danish journalist and documentarian Mads Brüggers has no intention of hiding behind his notebook or camera.
Part Michael Moore and part Sacha Baron Cohen, Brüggers in his earlier film, “Red Chapel,” talked his way into secretive North Korea by pretending to be the manager of a Korean-Danish theatrical troupe committed to radical political theater.
He puts himself front and center -- often clad in knee-high polished boots, a safari jacket and wielding a cigarette holder -- in “The Ambassador,” his intriguing documentary about corruption in Africa.
Brüggers' plan is to investigate the illegal conflict diamond trade and the role played by unscrupulous diplomats and government officials in Africa. To do so, he forks over $100,000-plus to a shady European broker so he can be credentialed as a Liberian diplomat to the tiny, land-locked Central Republic of Africa, a former French colonial outpost.
With a Liberian passport in hand but still awaiting his official diplomatic appointment, he moves into the penthouse suite in a hotel in downtown Bangui, the CRA’s capitol. Soon, he is riding around in a chauffeured car, making plans to set up a match factory as a cover business and taking meetings with government bigwigs and other diplomats, most of whom make it clear they expect a bribe (“envelopes of happiness,” is the local euphemism).
Brüggers’ real goal is to form an official allegiance with a blustery businessman who claims to have both high-government contacts and a diamond mine. The idea is that, once Brüggers’ official diplomatic credentials come through from Liberia, he will be able to smuggle diamonds anywhere, unimpeded, in diplomatic pouches.
His plan is only partly successful. Contacts disappear (including the CRA’s head of security, a cynical French ex-pat who looks and sounds remarkably like a younger, more dissolute Sydney Greenstreet), his business partner may be untrustworthy, and there seems be a problem with his Liberian credentials getting officially approved, despite his payoffs. He begins to fear for his own safety.
This would all be a lot funnier if it wasn’t real. Nearly everyone whom Brüggers encounters, from top officials to his own helpers, is out to tap the foreigner’s pocket. Sadly, it’s all too clear that corruption is endemic in the CRA and, when Brüggers ventures there, Liberia. The European businessman and diplomats, who are often one and the same, are revealed here as being no better, all trying to figure out how to get their hands on the CRA’s diamonds, minerals and oil.
In his guise as a preening diplomat, Brüggers is patronizing to the locals and sometimes borderline racist. The problem with “The Ambassador” is that you find yourself questioning the filmmaker’s own ethics in going into the CRA and making grand promises of his own to start a match factory, especially when he shows scenes of roomfuls of eager prospective workers, their faces shiny with hope. Just who exactly is double-dealing whom?