Since the time of Homer every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric. - Edward Said
The Ambassador (2011) is a prankumentary [ouch!] written and directed by Danish showman Mads Brügger. The intention is to unveil Mephistophelian levels of corruption in the trade of fake diplomatic passports within the context of the diamond smuggling in the Central African Republic. Brügger tailors for himself the character of a neo-colonialist - a man looking for luck and diplomatic credentials, a caricature of someone nostalgic for colonial times, starving for adventure while being adrift in Bangui.
The film nails us to the seat right away with its mixture of rhythm, funny touches and jaw dropping hidden cameras conversations. But as the game and the scope of the documentary enlarges, we painfully realize that it reiterates an old and tired Eurocentric point of view while at the same time flexing the smartass muscles of its mega prank. And so it is that as we begin to be mesmerized by an endless series of squalid figures and the ability of Brügger to create this humongous stunt, that we start to slip deeper and deeper into the old, sterile and obsolete message of an African State at the mercy of corruption, violence and lawlessness. If, on one hand, while building his web the director starts to give us a few crucial pieces of a very complex puzzle (from illegal agencies that provide diplomatic passports to Guy-Jean Le Foll Yamande, a larger than life figure, ex-legionnaire and Head of State Security who was eventually assassinated), on the other, he is too enamored with himself and his pre-conceived point of view to open up to the true complexity behind the events supposedly uncovered in the film. He painfully makes us discover the extent to which mainstream productions with African subjects are still way deep into the quicksand of tired western clichés. And the happy-go-lucky, super-white Danish “ambassador” (turned Liberian through bribes) that Brügger interprets does not help.
Slowing becoming the victim of his own joke, the showman hides behind his character first giving us the feeling that he is in control, while carrying some basic understanding of postcolonial history. But we soon discover that this is not the case and the film becomes a painful missed opportunity to cut through contemporary forms of neo-colonialism in the context of a globalized world. In fact, what emerges is a striking cultural void behind the filmmakers’ intentions, the dramatic lack of tools to tackle the self-imposed task to understand the complex reality of the diamond trade in the Central African Republic and by extension, the political life of the landlocked nation. So again, we have the impression of witnessing Brügger’s complacency in discovering the pieces of a puzzle and at the same time, we clearly see his lack of ability to put them together. While watching the film one craves a modern compass for the materials Brügger digs out and without it, one is left disoriented when the film starts to lose glue. When funny starts to be defined against the backdrop of exploitation and manipulation, the shock effect deflates under the shadow of its univocal western point of view.
The documentary turns plain vulgar when in underlining the marginalization and systematic discrimination of the Pygmy people of Central African Republic. Brügger decides to just play along making sure that at every turn they come out as nothing more than the village dumb. The generalization of saying “Pygmy” as opposed to specifying which ethnic group is presented, is in itself already a signal of the director’s mindset. The Aka (or Bayaka) people are known for their complex polyphonic music but all we are left with is the white man dancing in all its whiteness and tallness among a small group of Akas, all forced into drunkenness as part of the larger manipulation that the film is trying to achieve (here the direct responsibility of the filmmakers is literally unbearable); or when Brügger pushes two Akas to listen to whale sounds on a radio while the camera indulges on close-ups of their perplexed faces. Pranks within pranks have the effect of nullifying what the film was meant to achieve: shedding light trough playfulness into the abyss of historical short-circuits. We are left embarrassed for the filmmaker rather that the people he tries to embarrass.
It is here that something breaks; in 2012 even within the concept of a prankumentary, a basic awareness of postcolonial history should be mandatory. We are left with the partial lectures of hidden cameras on recent events, no context and when a context is called into play it quickly turns into stereotypes - bites of information constantly decontextualized. It is clear that the Danish showman had a pre-conceived goal; the feeling is not of a journey of discovery but one of easy manipulation. The detached and cynical approach that the film strives for ends up being a shortcut to avoid larger questions as opposed to a funny tool for a dynamic contemporary understanding.
In reading mainstream reviews of the film we are left off balance, and in some cases, we can justify for general tiredness of the reviewer (“you can imagine how this could have become a 1950s British comedy. It is all real," writes Roger Ebert), some other are plain obscene (“The closest I've ever seen to a real-life Heart of Darkness, but funnier,” by Vincent Mancini; or “A stunning, funny, and vital piece of guerilla cinema,” in New York Post). Not to mention the constant confusion many reviewers have on basic geography and the consequent generalizations, the Central African Republic for the CNN reviewer turns into “Central Africa” and of course, “it can be a dangerous place at the best of times.”
Herein lies the essential question: when will film critics take the responsibility to shift the general discourse on films that rotate around postcolonial and neo-colonial issues? Something has started to shift in political and cultural theory but no signs yet when it comes to mainstream film critics. Of the many reviews that the movie was granted, nobody addressed the dramatic cultural void it brings forth or its irreducible Eurocentric point of view. The task of raising the bar was left to viewers that in blogs and comments took the indignation into their hands. Such void in reviewing films that are widely released is something that must be taken seriously. It is time to understand that there is nothing subversive about senseless pranks and certainly nothing guerilla about a filmmaker going in and out into the Central African Republic with thousands of dollars to spend to then just go back to his sanitized-functional-sterilized Denmark.
Flavio Rizzo has a Ph.D in Comparative Literature from the City University of New York and an Italian Laurea in Cinema Studies. He is also a filmmaker. His latest work was a documentary on the Coca Wars in Bolivia.