Even if you like Mads Brügger’s documentaries, chances are you hate him. The characters he plays in his “non-fiction films”—a Communist theater director in The Red Chapel and, more recently, a corrupt diamond smuggler in The Ambassador—are manipulative and brash, pushing his subjects into greater levels of absurdity and maybe even hurting people. But are they revealing some kind of greater truth in the process?
First the trailer for “The Ambassador”:
Brügger believes his work contains qualities missing from most conventional journalism. Especially journalism dealing with Africa. I met him at his publicists’ office in New York where I was shocked to see him, not in riding boots and aviators like in The Ambassador but dressed down and earnest.
Are you a Journalist, an Artist or a Comedian?
My training is in journalism and it’s what I do mostly. A lot of the journalism I’ve done in Denmark is fairly conventional. I’m not running around doing The Ambassador all the time, but I do find it necessary to push the boundaries of what journalism should be or can be. If journalism is to survive and prosper it’s important for journalists to become more sophisticated. At times. Of course there will always be a need for orthodox journalism, but in regards to places where journalists can no longer operate such as the Central African Republic and North Korea I think it’s worth going the extra mile and trying something completely different. While being fully aware of the moral hazards of doing that, because of course there are.
Surely there are ways to report on these places and still adhere to the rules of journalism.
Marshall McLuhan spoke at length about how in a world where people consume as much information as they do, people become very aware of patterns and what is communicated to them. They become very adept at recognizing these patterns which is why people have stopped reading articles and watching the news because they already know what is in it before having read the article or seen the news story because of their ability to recognize patterns.
In that sense, many of the documentaries about North Korea or the suffering of Africa resemble each other to a degree where you can speak about the generic North Korea documentary or the generic Africa documentary. While many of these films are well meaning and well made, people either can’t bear watching them because they are fed up with this “pornography of suffering” or they are simply bored of it—desensitized because they have watched these films too many times.
So if I were to ask somebody “Would you like to see a documentary about the Central African Republic and systemic corruption and neo-colonialism,” many people would say “that sounds nice but I will take a rain check on that one.” If you were to pitch them the idea of The Ambassador: a very white guy becomes an African diplomat to another African country involving himself heavily with blood diamonds and producing matches with pygmies, many people would say “now we’re talking business.”
Just having this conversation with you proves my point because if I had done a very traditional film about the Central African Republic I would probably not be in New York. And the same about North Korea.
In many of the films I have seen about North Korea you have this very dramatic narration and ominous music and hidden camera material which, although interesting, doesn’t say a whole lot about North Korea. But I thought if I went there working as a fake comedy troupe showcasing Danish comedy, something completely different would happen and it would be a much more interesting film.
Conventional documentarians working in poor places often try hard not to perpetuate colonial relationships while they work. Does going there in character, essentially as a racist, mean you’re off the hook?
No, but it means I’m much more honest. Nobody will go to the Central African Republic, deal with the place, and come out without soiled hands, no matter how well meaning, altruistic, or politically correct a filmmaker you are.
I think there’s an honesty in being highly visible. Also, you do encounter a lot of racism there which you hardly hear about here and it is part of the discourse of power in the Central African Republic: black on black racism, tribal racism, racism against the pygmies, black on Chinese racism, black on white and white on black. Many people there are obsessed with race and race matters. But because it’s such a difficult thing to deal with, especially if you’re a filmmaker who is very careful about doing it the right way, it is something that is seldom talked about.
What about the ethics of having regular people in your film who have not consented to be in your film?
I am fully aware that in some regards the ethics in my film, to say it simply, kind of suck. They do.
But what is important for me is that 95 percent of the people in the film, myself included, are crooks. Furthermore, they are men of power who because of their positions and their wealth should be able to fight for themselves. And seen from a Central African Republic perspective I am not picking on the little guys, there are hardly any ordinary Central African Republic people in the film apart from the pygmies.
I read an interview with the director who did Darwin’s Nightmare, a film which had very severe repercussion for the people in it. He said if he had been aware of the consequences, he would never have made it.
For me, no film is worth somebody getting killed, myself included, but if you’re not able to deal with a film having consequences you should not do documentaries because documentaries do have consequences. It is extremely difficult to foresee what this film will cause. There are days when I fear this film will blow up in my face and terrible things will happen, but at the same time I heard a few days ago that because of this film, the media in Liberia have been able to identify eight other “Mr Cortzens” [Brügger's alias in the film] within their diplomatic corps.
Since the film, you have communicated back and forth with Liberian journalists who are trying to uncover corruption. What is your responsibility to Liberians?
Maybe it is easier for someone from the outside to do what I did in Liberia. I know that in the Central African Republic sometime ago they had the dawning of a free and independent press there. An editor of a magazine in Bangui exposed how the European Union gave the president François Bozizé several million euros to pay out as pensions to former CAR soldiers to prevent them from joining the rebels. Instead, he kept all the euros and none of the money went anywhere. That was exposed in the press and then the state came down on the editor and he was thrown in jail, they said for twelve years, for threatening the security of the state. And it was only because of a lot of pressure from outside, from Reporters Without Borders that he was finally released.
In that context if I had gone to Bangui and said I am here to do a documentary on neo-colonial corruption and how dysfunctional a government you have here I would have been on the next flight out. And none of the men in the film would have met with me. That, I think, is journalistically defensible.
In the film you touch on Françafrique. The old colonial relationship that never went away. How does it work?
The real overlords are the French. The French Foreign Legion are there—hidden away but you do see them from time to time. I would say 100 foreign legionnaires could destroy the CAR army within hours. It is one of the few places in the world that France could change the course of history with a couple hundred soldiers.
There are substantial French business and political interests in the Central African Republic. I do believe the head of state security [A Frenchman who’s had his citizenship revoked for mercenary activities who Brügger interviews with a hidden camera] when he says France considers the CAR to be its college fund, its savings.
Do you trust him?
In many ways he is saying what a lot of the NGOs are saying and I think it’s a lot more interesting to hear it from him. A lot of the things he said which I was able to verify with at least two sources, checked out. I’m fully aware of him working for the regime and probably being involved in horrendous activities but it was clear to me that he was an intellectual and he was very much in the know about what was going on. He knew everybody.
When he was assassinated, were you worried about your own safety?
It was clearly a shock that he was killed. It was the first time that somebody who I had a relationship with was killed—a moment that stays with you for a long time. My impression was, as far as I understood it from a diplomat in Bangui, that it was the regime who killed him probably because he was involved in a state coup himself.
At one point in the film, your producer, Eva, has had enough.
That really was her breaking point. That was her snapping. She’s Francophone. I speak broken French. So she could understand all the subtleties and finer details of what Mr Gilbert [a diamond mine owner and politician] was saying and what he was about. She thought of him as the most repulsive human being she had ever met. She hated his guts. Especially when she learned about his child bride in the diamond mine.
What would have been your breaking point? Would you have brought the diamonds back to Denmark?
No, that was one of the few things I decided I would not do before going there. That would be moving into full blown crime. And the consequences of doing that were something I did not want to mess with.
It was as extreme role playing as it gets. Over a really prolonged period of constant paranoia and stress. But what did the trick for me, and maybe this is repulsive to some people, is that I did my best to get some enjoyment from it. And it does have its fun moments being the Liberian consul in Bangui. And I did get to meet and hang out with the most bizarre colorful characters you can imagine. What is so interesting about Bangui is that it is the ultimate hideaway. It is so much off the beaten path and so much off the radar that if you want to disappear, you go to Bangui.
It’s a place that attracts shady and really weird people. Which makes the social scene amongst high society people in Bangui so very interesting. Close to the hotel was a mentally disturbed person living. He was walking around talking to himself and every night at sunset he would go to the river and he would for sometimes half an hour shout to the Congolese fishermen on the other side of the river which is across the border. He would say “please help me fishermen of Congo, I am trapped in a terrible nightmare.”
And I could really identify with him. And I thought what must does say when you are calling to the Congo for help. That is pure desperation. There were also times when I thought maybe he is the only sane person here.
The whole idea of completely becoming someone else was more or less what I was doing. Which also is intoxicating and riveting, really doing a clean slate and being a whole new person.
In The Red Chapel you are halfway there. Was it a conscious decision to kick it up a notch?
Yes it was. And maybe even getting beyond role playing and actually becoming a diamond businessman, a Liberian diplomat. That is very much taking it to the next level.
What is the difference between someone role-playing an evil deed and a person actually doing it?
That is a tricky question. For me you know with The Red Chapel I had a lot of criticism from people saying this is make believe. “You are cheating the North Koreans. How dare you. You are an imposter.”
And I was really fond of the idea that after The Ambassador I could say “yep, I am the consul of Liberia. Whether you like it or not, I am. Where’s the fraud?” But then it becomes complicated if I am the real deal, then I am involved in real morally complicated wrongdoings.
* Aaron Leaf tweets here.