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'Ambassador' filmmaker Brugger decided infiltration was the best way to relay story

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com
Danish filmmaker Mads Brugger posed as a diplomat in Africa to expose extreme corruption in 'The Ambassador.' 'The trick is to find some enjoyment in it,' he says.

Danish journalist and filmmaker Mads Brugger believes that the more information you consume, the better you get at pattern recognition. The constant bombardment can have a stultifying effect.

People see a headline or hear the first line of a report on the news and feel they already know the whole story and tune out.

"So if you want to engage readers and viewers you have to somehow circumvent this defense line," Brugger said recently by phone.

That rationale led to Brugger taking an unorthodox approach to his latest film, "The Ambassador." The provocative gonzo documentary distributed by Austin's Drafthouse Films follows the 41-year-old journalist as he travels to Africa to expose the depth of the corruption in Liberia and the Central African Republic.

Sensing that people may be desensitized to stories coming out of Africa, Brugger didn't want to tell the story in a straight-ahead documentary format. So he decided to implicate himself in the unethical drama.

Inspired by a diplomatic passport brokerage he stumbled across online in 2007, Brugger created the character of Mads Cortzen, a Danish businessman looking to purchase diplomatic immunity in the form of an ambassadorship to the Central African Republic on behalf of the African country of Liberia.

To fully inhabit the character, Brugger read books on diplomatic etiquette and attended embassy parties in his native Copenhagen. He studied African diplomats to learn what kind of cigarettes and whiskey they preferred. (Red Dunhills and Johnny Walker Black, if you're wondering.)

He spent weeks looking for the perfect riding boots, and he found them in the form of a chocolate brown pair from Belgian designer Ann Demeulemeester. The boots conferred an exotic classiness and gravitas to the act.

And Brugger would need all of the support he could get. He brazenly entered meetings with government officials and dangerous diamond miners with a surprising ease and quiet confidence, never betraying his true mission.

Near-misses with imprisonment and tense moments with armed guerrilla soldiers would scare the most unflappable journalist, but Brugger tried to keep the dangers out of his mind.

"I surely had my concerns, but with extreme role play it is very important that you try to be as naïve as possible and as much in character as possible all the time," Brugger said. "Because if you do start thinking about what you are actually involved in, you will not survive it."

At one point in the film, Brugger's African attaché tells him that the key to dealing with underworld violence and unethical business deals in Africa is to stay relaxed. Easier said than done. But Brugger did seem to relish the power and prestige of his assumed role as a diplomat armed with cash (money, by the way, provided by the supportive Danish Film Institute).

"The trick is to find some enjoyment in it," Brugger said. And he admits that the role playing, despite its dangers, did have fun moments. Interacting with diamond dealers and working with pygmies can be a "very intoxicating feeling," he said. Besides, "it makes life a lot more interesting compared to, you know, being in Copenhagen."

Brugger has put himself in bizarre situations before, sneaking about North Korea and making a satirical journey across America posing as a "new conservative" Dane supporting George W. Bush. But he had never done anything "as risky and utterly ludicrous" as being a diplomat in the Central African Republic.

"The most disturbing thing is how easy it is for a man like Mr. Cortzen to exploit and rape an entire country in a matter of weeks, if he is in a country as dysfunctional and corrupt as the Central African Republic or Liberia," Brugger said. "The question you have to ask yourself is, at some point the real Mr. Cortzen will come to town, and what will happen then?"

The simple answer: It will be very ugly and very real.

Contact Matthew Odam at 912-5986. Twitter: @Odam