Reporter's African expose at NZFF
A Danish man buys some documents, becomes a diplomat in the middle of Blood Diamond Africa, does a handful of dodgy deals with some even dodgier people, and secretly films the whole thing.
It might sound like the latest offering from Hollywood's top script writers, but for journalist Mads Brugger it was his reality, and the subject of his latest documentary, The Ambassador.
The film follows Brugger as he buys the role of Liberian honorary consul to the Central African Republic, essentially over the internet, and attempts to immerse himself in the diplomatic community as a way of exposing the area's deeply-ingrained corruption. It's a place where conflict diamonds are traded as currency, deals are done in the back of speeding cars and the list of people you can trust is not a long one.
Brugger, who is in Auckland to attend the documentary's screening at the New Zealand International Film Festival, says going undercover and adopting a new persona was the safest - and only - way to truly get to the heart of the issue.
"If I were to go to the Central African Republic as a journalist saying 'I'm here to do an exposé of neo-colonialism and systemic corruption in your country' I would be on the next plane out of the Central African Republic.
"Pretending to be a diplomat isn't that difficult really - diplomats don't ask each other for credentials... but what's difficult to prepare for is what comes after telling someone you are the General Counsel of Liberia. How does your character carry himself, how do you make small talk, what type of political views do you have, how do you dress?
"Right down to how to hold a cocktail the right way - they take a napkin, fold it into a triangle and wrap it around the glass. I don't know why, maybe they don't want to leave finger prints, but that is a sure sign of dealing with an African diplomat.
"And [being a diplomat] would bring me beyond role-playing, which makes it much more interesting."
While it might be interesting to the audience, for the film maker it was a dangerous game of charades.
Throughout the three months he spent in the African nation, Brugger films - both openly (with his camera man working under the guise of a still photo press officer) and with hidden cameras - his attempts to use his new-found status to get close to the powerful people of the CAR, from the diamond miners to the country's dangerous leaders.
While much of the film tackles the issue of corruption with an almost Borat-like humour, when questions arise over his paperwork, the film descends into a nervous wait to see how things will end.
Brugger says there were numerous occasions where he feared for his life. From the constant fear of rebel attacks to being interrogated in a "very aggressive way by a police officer on drugs, while the radio was playing the Danish pop group Aqua's, Barbie Girl", the director was worried where his journey would take him.
"It was a prolonged period of paranoia, stress and anxiety. I also had moments where I was absolutely enjoying myself. Being an African diplomat can be a very intoxicating and wonderful feeling. When you are driving through the capital in a high speed SUV with your two Pygmy assistants and a sinister diamond mine owner you think 'this is really working for me'."
While Brugger knows he will never be able to go back to the CAR ("I am certainly not spending my summer holidays in the Central African Republic. If there is a 'Hot or Not list', I am definitely on the Not list."), he hopes the film will let audiences, especially those in Africa, answer some important questions.
But he says one aspect of his time in the CAR still puzzles him.
"I am a very Caucasian, white looking guy. And no one asked the very obvious question - how come a white guy is representing an African country in another African country. It is quite bizarre."
The Ambassador screens at the New Zealand International Film Festival in Auckland and Wellington. See www.nzff.co.nz for session details.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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