06 November 2012

The Blurry Line Between Fact and Fiction in The Ambassador

Danish journalist/filmmaker Mads Brügger's film, The Ambassador, is causing a small stir regarding the people that Brügger films as well as the director/star's own role in the story. Some wonder if ethical lines were crossed in the making of the film in order to tell the story. The Al Jazeera show The Stream hosted a discussion with Brügger about the film and I had the opportunity to participate through a Google+ Hangout.

The Ambassador features Brügger posing as a wealthy businessman who wants to gain diplomatic status to the Central African Republic (CAR) in order to access the nation's nefarious diamond trade. He employs hidden cameras to record conversations about how he can purchase a diplomatic ambassadorship and ends up working with one many to become the Liberian ambassador to the CAR.

Once in country, the newly appointed ambassador sets out to link up with a diamond mine owner, meets with top government officials and other diplomats, sets out to build a match factory that he knows will never come to be and exploit the nation's pygmies. All in all, the ambassador is a character that is only less detestable than the shady men with whom his attempting to do business.

Some are concerned that by taking part in the story and in supporting the diamond trade through his actions in the film Brügger crossed over the line of journalism. Brügger addressed this point by saying that there are instances when a different kind of journalism has to be employed in order to tell the story. To him, the CAR is a place to do that because of the nature of the country and the fact that it is not on the radar for the people in his audience. Rather than present a film about corruption, blood diamonds and colonialism, Brügger felt that he needed to illustrate the issues through a fictional character.

After some technical problems, I asked Brügger what separates him from actor Sasha Baron Cohen who is famous for his characters Bruno, Borat and Ali G. Brügger said he respected Cohen, but the difference was that he acts as a journalists rather than a performer. Unfortunately I could not follow up to press Brügger a bit further do define what he sees as the difference between performance and journalism. I also wonder to what extent we can see the truth when a fictional character is implanted into real life situations.

Brügger in The Ambassador
The character that Brügger plays is different than an investigative journalist attempting to spend time in a certain area or as a part of a group. The fictional character does not solely exist to extract valuable information, it is the center part of the story and the cause, in some part, of the action of others.

There is a feeling similar to the Bob Dylan documentary 'Don't Look Back.' Pennebaker gained access to Dylan at a time when his popularity was at its peak and the performer was equally hated for going electric. There is a famous scene where Dylan meets fellow pop musician Donovan and he proceeds to make fun of the shy Scot.

Dylan, like Brügger, put on a performance for the documentary. He assumed a sort of neurotic character that would have mystifying conversations with the press and acted indifferent to nearly everything. The actions of Dylan impacted the people around him in a way that suspended reality.

The challenge with Brügger's film is that he takes on this character so well that it is hard for the audience to see where fiction may impose itself onto fact. In an interview on Africa is a Country with Aaron Leaf, Brügger addresses the ethical concerns of the film saying, "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."

The film managed to cause a stir in Liberia where there are rumors that the government will set out a warrant for the arrest of Brügger. In one scene, Brügger meets with the chair of the ruling Unity Party Varney Sherman to discuss the progress of his ambassadorship. Sherman encouraged Brügger to make a 'donation' to the Unity Party to help the process move along.

Reports from Liberia indicate that the government is more concerned with Brügger than with the corruption he exposes through the film. Leaf summarized this problem in African Arguments, saying:
Indeed, the Liberian government, which counts on its international reputation to attract investment, is eager for revenge calling the film “not only immoral but also criminal and offensive to the government and people of Liberia.” Nobel laureate President Johnson Sirleaf has told Liberia’s largest newspaper FrontPage Africa that she is “exploring extradition proceedings to bring the Danish national to Liberia to face justice.” 
My friend Wade Williams, an editor at FrontPage echoes Lamii’s sentiment saying that many Liberians “feel it is a shame that President Sirleaf cannot call a probe but decides to take issue with the journalist.” Sherman, she tells me, has denied that he dealt with Brügger as head of the ruling party or took a bribe. An email exchange Sherman released earlier this year implies that the money exchanged was part of a processing fee that he tried to return after the deal fell through.
The conversation from yesterday is worth watching. The last section is particularly good because Brügger is pushed a bit further and Aaron Leaf asks an excellent question that came from Sean Jacobs of AIC regarding the ethics of Brügger's use of the pygmies in order to move the narrative. The progress of the story will be one to watch, especially in regards to Liberia, to fully understand the impact of the film.