Mads Brugger’s 2011 documentary The Ambassador is fascinating,funny and disturbing. You should see it—but it’s also terrible and I don’t trust it. And when you’re done being entertained, you shouldn’t trust it either. This movie lets an entertaining tail wag the whole dog, and a chilling,deeply fascinating story of corrupt bureaucracy is forced to share screen time with the filmmaker’s low-rent Borat impersonation, ruining everything. There’s a reason there hasn’t been a 60 minutes/Jackass crossover, and the mixed bag of The Ambassador is it.
The Ambassador appears to be an undercover expose of how extremely shady people use African diplomatic passports and widespread political corruption to smuggle blood diamonds. If you have diplomatic immunity, you can leave a conflict diamond producing country without going through customs, and this film alleges that there are thousands of people using this quirk of international law to become blood diamond mules. The movie appears to consist almost entirely of conversations with officials in the Central African Republic filmed with hidden cameras, and since some of the people shown having those conversations have since taken legal action against the flick according to Wikipedia, I have to believe the movie struck a nerve. Evildoers being dragged into the light, so far so good, right?
Wrong! This movie steps right into a cow pie with its opening narration, in which Brugger talks over footage of himself standing in an airport, telling us he is leaving journalism forever to become a diplomatic blood diamond smuggler. As the movie progresses, the way the footage is edited and some of the over-the-top things Brugger says and does suggest to us that he is playing a character, that he is pretending to be a disgusting racist euro-trash diamond profiteer while winking at the camera and remaining, in secret, a reporter. But he never says this explicitly, and I frankly was unsure about it for much of the film. He never tells us he is going undercover, there is never a big reveal. We see him buy diamonds that certainly appear to have been mined by children living in a hole in the ground, and at the end of the movie he implies that he smuggled these diamonds out of Africa in his ass, for profit. If I can’t tell where Brugger the journalist ends and Brugger the Sacha Baron Cohen wanna-be begins, I can’t trust anything else that is going on in this movie. At the end of the film I felt compelled to make sure the Central African Republic, the country that is the focus of the movie, actually existed. What kind of expose instills doubt into the viewer about its most basic premise? A crappy one, that’s what.
Even though I’m against the way Brugger inserted his stupid business diplomat caricature into the film, I can’t deny that he’s entertaining, when he’s not being horribly racist and exploitative. But more on that in a sec. Caricature Brugger is a glad-handing, money obsessed smile, who dresses like a bond villain, complete with cigarette holder. He hobnobs with government officials, frightening diamond mine owners, and shady government ministers. I won’t deny that the way these officials take his money grubbing character seriously is an effective way to show how disgusting they are, but it comes at a cost. Since I can’t separate Brugger from his character, I don’t know what to think when he tells his fixer he doesn’t trust any Asians because they are sneaky, or causes an entire village of pygmies to be over served wine and moonshine so they’ll dance for him. Even though we see gun toting soldiers and apparently exploited diamond miners in this movie, the sight of those drunk old men and children dancing around to please him so he will employ them in his (fictional!) match factory is the most disturbing in this film, in my opinion.
The fascinating undercover interviews in the film and the intercut historical context show that Brugger had the seed of an amazing documentary here, but he fumbled it going for laughs. There is a scene where a diamond mine owner gets into an argument with a business associate over a woman who appears to be a prisoner of one or both of them. Brugger remarks on it, he notes that it is disturbing, but it is never fully explained, and never revisited. Instead, we get a scene where Brugger, who has acquired two Pygmy assistants he seems to think are comedic relief, plays tape recorded whale song for them while they sit there not knowing what to do. It’s cruel, completely unfunny, and does nothing to satisfy the burgeoning fascination with the blood diamond trade that this movie was supposed to be concerned with. If you see this movie, you will leave with that itch unscratched. You should see it, because it’s fascinating. But you can’t fucking trust it.