It's one thing to want to do a story on the blood diamond trade in Africa. Two-thirds of the world's diamonds (legal and illegal) are exported from the country, and governments still make shady backdoor power plays to keep control of the rocks buried in the ground. Specifically, Mads Brügger is interested in doing a story on black-market diplomats -- people who fork over hefty sums of money to shady people in order to be crowned a diplomat in the Central African Republic, free to walk in wearing a nice suit and out with a suitcase full of fresh diamonds under the cover of immunity. But Brügger puts his money where his mouth is: he buys the credentials and goes in himself.
The Ambassador is a dizzying first-hand account of Brügger's journey into Africa and his meetings and dealings with government officials, political players, other "diplomats," and the owner of a diamond mine, with the end goal of turning the Danish filmmaker into a real diplomat and international diamond smuggler. Without any obvious protection, he sets up a diplomatic office inside the penthouse suite of a crumbling hotel, and starts doling out cash to the local authorities to help grease the wheels of his new career. It's a ridiculously ballsy move that gives the whole film a live-wire nervousness, especially when Brügger pushes his luck...which is always.
Brügger offers voice-over narration to describe the history of the Central African Republic and its political ties. "The C.A.R. offers itself as a Jurassic Park for people who long for the Africa of the 1970s," he deadpans. One of Brügger's interviews is with the head of state security for the Central African Republic, an overweight guy whose flop sweat is matched in pace by his ciagrette smoking. Armed soldiers line the streets, their allegiences unclear, especially in the context that anyone seems to be willing to bend the rules for what Brügger calls an "envelope of happiness." The head of state security flatly tells Brügger that it would probably be beneficial for the French, who believe themselves to be the owners of the CAR's unharvested diamonds, for everyone to kill each other.
As a director, Brügger paints an incredible picture of corruption, where unimaginably wealthy men fly in and out for their own gain, and governments try to backstab one another in order to lay a claim on the CAR, without contributing to the financial security of the area in any way. Part of Brügger's cover story is that he's going to build a match factory in the CAR, providing work for many of the people and saving them from having to import matches from France. He is open about the fact that he will have to disappoint them, but reminds the viewer that real people do the same thing on a regular basis. Meanwhile, the man who sold Brügger his passport becomes increasingly hard to reach, and there is building concern that someone will find out his fakery as Brügger makes his way up the chain of command with the local government.
Meanwhile, Brügger meets with Dalkia Gilbert, the owner of a diamond mine. "Being a diplomat at heart," he says, "I wanted to get my hands on as many diamonds as possible." Mr. Gilbert appears friendly and pleasant toward his new diplomat friend, then tries to trick Brügger into signing a contract that agrees that he'll pay "all of Mr. Gilbert's expenses forever." Their negotiation is a hilariously stacked deck, and although Mr. Gilbert regales Brügger with stories of diamonds worth 90 million, it might be smoke and mirrors. Is Brügger's local lawyer working for Gilbert? Is Brügger's assistant in on it too? When Brügger tells some of the people he meets with that he's about to make a deal with Mr. Gilbert, their nervous laughter does not inspire confidence.
Brügger's editing jumps back and forth on the timeline, revealing more and more of his meetings as the "story" progresses. It feels a little disingenuous -- re-assembling the timeline, mentally, is hard to do fluidly -- but he still captures so many jaw-dropping sights, so many incredible comments, so many darkly funny moments, that it's hard to argue with his style overall. Some viewers will feel that Brügger pulls his punches a little with the film's abrupt ending, but criticizing Brügger's bravado after the movie's first 93 minutes feels like it'd be missing the point.
The Ambassador is No 6. in the Alamo Drafthouse Films series. Like the previous Image releases, it arrives in a transparent Vortex eco-friendly Blu-Ray case (the kind that uses less plastic), and offers reversible cover art that lets the owner choose between poster art and a more stylish design. Inside the case, there is a 16-page booklet filled with photos (but no text!) and a sheet of paper with a free Digital Copy code on it.
The Video and Audio
This 1.78:1 AVC 1080p, DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 presentation looks and sounds nice for the most part, but like any guerilla documentary, the quality of the sound and footage changes drastically throughout the feature, jumping from full HD to smaller, cheaper cameras and even switching to cell phone and button cams from time to time. The genuine HD footage offers great detail, but the image runs very hot, with blown-out whites and searing oranges. HD audio deals mostly with Brügger's voice-over narration, but the dialogue is pretty clear even when the circumstances in which it was recorded were less than ideal. Oddly, the audio is set very low; I found I had to crank it up much higher than usual to get it to a comfortable level, but it's uniformly low, so it's not a huge deal. Some viewers might find it a little irksome, though, that Image or Drafthouse have gone with burned-in English subtitles for this release. I imagine most viewers would turn the subtitles on, given the sometimes scratchy audio and the frequent foreign languages being spoken, but it'd be nice if there were two tracks (one covering the whole film, and one with just the foreign languages).
There is only one extra feature: an audio commentary by director Mads Brügger. He confesses that it is his first time recording an audio commentary, but he does a decent job. His comments are very screen-specific and lean toward the technical and personal, recounting how they captured some of the guerilla footage and recalling his impressions of the experience during specific scenes ("I was constantly considering which way I should run, should he find the pinhole camera"). There are also some pauses, while Brügger watches the movie and waits for a new topic to come up, but they're not too bad in my opinion. Much like the ending, some viewers will be disappointed that he doesn't elaborate on certain subjects, but it's a good track anyway. "Men wearing two-tone shoes are always taken seriously in Africa."
On the special features menu, there are trailers for Drafthouse Films' Bullhead and Klown. An original theatrical trailer is also included.
Brügger lives up to his first name; The Ambassador is an insane reporting stunt, and it makes for an electrifying documentary. The Blu-Ray may not pack a particularly high-def punch, but the film and the overall package are both highly recommended.
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