Danish filmmaker pushes the envelope of happiness in African documentary

Mads Brugger
Mads Brugger

FOR most career diplomats, the Central African Republic is the naughty step of postings, the place they're sent when their behaviour has been what Super Nanny would call ''unasseptable''. But for a small and unscrupulous band of entrepreneurs, a posting to this failed state can be a passport to untold and ill-gotten wealth.

In his frequently hilarious documentary The Ambassador, Danish filmmaker Mads Brugger exposes the shadowy world of bought postings, corruption and diamond smuggling rife in one of the poorest places on Earth.

Going by the name Mads Cortzen, Brugger arrives in the country with plans to open a match factory staffed by pygmies. His real aim, though, is to worm his way into the upper echelons of government and smuggle out a swag of diamonds under the guise of diplomatic immunity.

Would it be fair to call this gonzo journalism, I ask the tall, lean, bald and red-bearded Brugger, here (with his seven-year-old son in tow) for the film festival. ''It's gonzo in the way it is fast and out of control,'' he says.

''Using comedy, or actively provoking funny situations in a context that is serious, works well because it brings people out of their comfort zone and it moves the film away from the generic Africa documentary.''

Not that Brugger eschews the cliches; in fact, he revels in them, striding around in riding boots and jacket and puffing on cigars. ''Blending in makes you more suspicious, so I thought by being very overt and very visible there would be a survival strategy in that,'' he says. ''I thought that if I could turn myself into the black fantasy of the ultimate white diplomat something interesting would happen, it would open up doors. And it did.''

As it happens, he adds, ''Playing a neocolonial villain was something that came very naturally to me.''

The adventure starts in Portugal, where Brugger attempts to buy a diplomatic posting to the republic from a shadowy English broker. When that fails, he finds a Dutch broker who swings a deal with Liberia. For a small consideration - $US150,000 - Brugger is on his way as the poor west African nation's official representative.

Before long, he's handing out ''envelopes of happiness'' to officials high and low in the resource-rich, poverty-stricken country. In fact, a good chunk of the film's €1 million budget was spent on palm greasing. ''But they do give you receipts now,'' he notes. ''They call it consultancies.''

Much of the film was shot with hidden cameras, and at least one of the interview subjects does not make it to the end credits alive. Nor does Brugger's appointment go smoothly. The tone remains resolutely ironic, but there must have been times when he felt seriously at risk. ''There were moments which were disturbing, and prolonged periods of paranoia and stress,'' he admits. ''One minute you could be having cocktails with the son of the president and 10 minutes later you could find yourself in a torture dungeon, not because of something you have said or done, but because of something which is out of your control. There is no logical causality there.''

The diplomatic corps doesn't come off all that well in The Ambassador, but Brugger insists there are good people in service even in the Central African Republic. ''But you also have to realise that if you are dispatched there it is, in the world of diplomacy, a punishment. It's not a nice place to go.''

He says he has heard the film was screened at the American embassy in the capital, Bangui, recently, for an audience of diplomats, who loved it. ''They thought it was spot-on,'' he says.

Liberia's president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is less impressed. This week, she called for Brugger to be arrested and extradited to her country to face fraud charges. ''I think she also called me a rascal and a criminal,'' Brugger adds. ''They're great one-liners for PR.''

The Ambassador screens at Greater Union Russell Street at 9pm as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival.

■ The Age is a festival sponsor.

This story Danish filmmaker pushes the envelope of happiness in African documentary first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.