Investing in the Past
“From this point, there’s no going back,” Mads Brügger declares, his wide pale face looming in the frame. “Here ends my life as a Danish journalist.” What begins now, at the beginning of The Ambassador, is his existence as an international entrepreneur. “What awaits me,” he goes on, “is a life where I can operate freely, beyond all moral boundaries known to man, while still being a respectable member of society. A life where I can indulge myself in secret state affairs, enjoy red carpet treatment, and travel the world with a suitcase full of diamonds. What I am talking about, of course, is life as an African diplomat.”
And so Brügger, calling himself Mr. Cortzen, sets out for Bengui, in the Central African Republic (CAR), with brief stops elsewhere in search of false papers proclaiming him an ambassador for Liberia, obtained through a series of increasingly erratic machinations. Part faux documentary, part boy’s adventure, and part surreal politics, The Ambassador lays out how such illegal activities are managed and at least some of their moral and emotional tolls. Wearing sunglasses and a dark suit, he meets with a couple of title brokers, Colin Evans in Portugal and, “not wanting to put my eggs in one basket,” Dutchman Willem Tijssen as well. It’s hardly surprising or encouraging that Evans refuses to be filmed, meeting with his client outside, supposedly beyond the reach of recording instruments. Brügger shoots him anyway, with a hidden camera, so Evans appears bobbing and blurred as he cautions that if Brügger is caught, “The best you can hope for is to be arrested and go to jail,” and “the worst you could hope for,” well, that would be death.
Tjilssen meets with Brügger in a more conventional setting, a boardroom where a surveillance camera captures almost illegible images. Here they discuss what Brügger calls “all the wonderful opportunities I would have as an African diplomat.” The men tell themselves they’re not to blame for the corruption they’re merely exploiting. “In the world,” explains Tjilssen, “you have the underworld, the criminals, the world where we live, and the backworld, the people who are very influential.” It only makes sense for denizens of that middle world, the one “where we live,” to find a way to profit from the sometimes brutal and even fatal shenanigans undertaken by the other two.
Brügger asserts that the risks are worth taking, heading to the Central African Republic, which he describes as “murky waters for white men.” Of course, it’s to his benefit to manipulate that murkiness, in the sense that he lies to everyone he meets. He feigns interest in establishing a matchmaking factory (which he names Le Ambassadeur) as cover for his other activities, then comes up with the marketing ploy of hiring pygmies to devise the matches (because, he reasons, his potential customers will be impressed by the pygmies’ expertise in “black magic”).
No matter the pretend business, Brügger keeps focused, more or less, on the real profits to be had in smuggling conflict diamonds. Repeatedly, he’s counseled to deliver unto local mine owners and political administrators “the envelope of happiness,” that is, an envelope stuffed with cash. As he spends more time with his African counterparts, Brügger begins to feel more sure of himself: “Now I really feel like the black albino,” he jokes with one associate, “white on the outside, but really black on the inside.”
As he and his new friend laugh over his self-assessment, The Ambassador underscores how race and racism shapes relationships between European and African players: whether both sides or only one might be aware of this underpinning, whether “the Caucasian pigment-challenged male” assumes a customary if outdated authority or just hopes for it, the film’s hidden cameras—producing grainy, convulsively mobile images—accentuate the absurdity of such assumptions. As Brügger and his associates laugh and clap hands on each other’s backs, you see they’re performing, not very convincingly, their pledges and their alliances, and that no one in the room believes anyone else.
The Ambassador suggests that cynicism is the order of the day in current diplomacy, even as participants tell themselves otherwise. On occasion, Brügger provides a big of background, with footage of Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the flamboyant self-proclaimed emperor who presided over the CAR from the time of a 1966 coup until his overthrow in 1979; Brügger names archival footage of Bokassa “an example of how time moves backwards here in the CAR,” pointing out “the hotel in the background [that] used to be called the Jewel of Bokassa, an ostentatious display of wealth in a nation defined by abject poverty.
Current investment in the past, specifically in a past defined by corruption, is made clear when Brügger meets with the CAR’s former Head of Security, Guy-Jean Le Foll Yamande, a decidedly outsized figure who wholly fills the iris shot affected by the hidden camera in Brügger’s office. Yamande explains the details of who needs to be paid and how, as well as the consequences of not playing by the rules: “If he disappears, he disappears,” he says of a rebel leader, suggesting that efforts to intervene in longstanding government corruption are both expected and regularly resolved.
If Brügger seems to be bungling his way through a business of extremely high stakes, the character of Mr. Cortzen serves its purpose. “Some call [the CAR] a failed state, but this would hardly be true,” he opines, because it has “never been a functioning state structure.” It has instead been an example of how business gets done in the several worlds that Tjilssen describes. Their inhabitants are all bunglers, clever and calculating, but also perpetually in danger and ignorant, whether willfully or not. Deploying his whiteness to gain access to these worlds even as he remains definitively outside, Brügger embodies an all too familiar arrogance and callowness, historical and ongoing.