Before I traveled to Ghana for the first time in 1993, I attended an orientation in Washington DC for Fulbright scholars who would be working in sub-Saharan Africa. Returning scholars gave us lots of advice, some mission-critical (many people react badly to Lariam, the most-prescribed anti-malarial drug), some merely anecdotal and amusing. In the latter camp was a story about bribery in Ghana:
A Fulbright scholar had been warned he might be solicited for a bribe at Accra’s Kotoka Airport. He came prepared with a thick stack of US $5 bills. As he made his way through immigration, baggage claim and customs, he began handing bills to anyone who crossed his path. Word of this spread quickly, and he ended up running a gauntlet of baggage handlers, touts and officials, all with their hands out. He left the airport exhausted, devoid of bills, convinced that Ghana was, indeed, the most corrupt country he’d ever encountered.
The point of the story is not that Ghana is corrupt, but that your expectations about a situation have everything to do with what you will encounter. I’ve flown in and out of Kotoka dozens of times now, and have never been asked for a bribe, except in jest. (Indeed, in twenty years of doing business in Ghana, I’ve never been solicited for a bribe, though I’ve occasionally tipped low-level government employees, like the post office worker who spent three hours helping me wrap fragile xylophones in foam for shipping to the US.) But I’m confident that, had I offered bribes to anyone who was bribable, I’d be able to spend hundreds on each journey to Accra.
Trailer for “The Ambassador”
I thought about this story after watching Mads Brügger’s new film, The Ambassador. Brügger is a Danish journalist who gained international fame and notoriety for his previous film, The Red Chapel, where he poses as the communist director of a comedy troupe in order to be invited into North Korea, where the government – predictably, clumsily – tries to steer their work in a pro-regime direction. In this new film, Brügger attempts to expose those involved in the trade in blood diamonds: the government officials who are willing to sell diplomatic credentials to allow buyers in and out of diamond-producing countries, and the title brokers who make such trade possible.
To offer this exposé, Brügger creates a character, Mads Cortzen, who embodies every cliché of European colonialism in Africa. In tropical suits and knee-high boots, Cortzen smokes cigarettes in a long, ivory holder, hires two Pygmy assistants because “they are good luck” and spouts offensive dialog at every turn. His antics are recorded by an array of hidden cameras, sometimes placed in hollowed-out books, sometimes worn on Brügger’s body, as he pursues his agenda: obtain diplomatic credentials as an ambassador from Liberia, establish himself as a dealer in diamonds in the Central African Republic, secure conflict diamonds and bring them back to Europe.
Brügger’s point, apparently, is that this isn’t hard to do, and that corrupt businessmen from around the world are routinely engaged in this trade. But the narrative of the film complicates that premise. The drama of the film is all generated by the difficulties Cortzen experiences in carrying out his plans. His title broker, the hapless Willem Tijssen, delivers a handwritten diplomatic passport, not the biometric passports now used by Liberia and other ECOWAS nations, and seems unable to provide more believable credentials, despite the interventions of a powerful, and heavily compensated, lawyer. Cortzen’s diamond-mining partner appears likely to abscond with the funds Cortzen has invested, or to turn him over to the authorities when he tries to leave the country carrying diamonds. It’s not clear whether Cortzen’s fixer is even on his side, or whether he’s working for the diamond miner, the government, or other unknown parties. Near the end of the film, it seems possible that Cortzen, who came to the Central African Republic to transfer the nation’s mineral wealth to Europe will end up losing his investments, and locked in a Bangui prison. And given my increasing annoyance with his colonialist caricature, that’s the outcome I found myself rooting for.
At the end, Brügger’s character gets his diamonds, but doesn’t get the credentials he’d need to smuggle them safely. The film avoids the issue of what happens with the diamonds, archly noting the importance of discretion in diamond smuggling. Brügger has told interviewers that he wasn’t willing to break international law to bring the diamonds out of CAR, and sold them within the country, giving the proceeds to the Pygmies who’ve worked with him on his cover scheme, a match factory that promises jobs to impoverished workers. Not knowing whether the Cortzen character could have left the country with the diamonds leaves the central question of the film unanswered. Had he left without incident, it strengthens the narrative that diamond smuggling is easy and commonplace, while if Brügger were betrayed by his diamond mining colleague, it would complete a story of an arrogant interloper who wasn’t as smart as he thought, and who ended up victim of the people he thought he was manipulating.
When I first heard of the film, I thought it was likely to be a Vice-style “look at how crazy and dangerous Africa is” documentary, like The Vice Guide to Liberia (reviewed here.) I’m both intrigued and annoyed by this style of storytelling, angered by the clichés, but interested in anyone’s efforts to build narratives about sub-Saharan Africa that capture wide audiences. It’s clear that Brügger is a more sophisticated and complicated filmmaker than the Vice folks – they seem blissfully unaware of their racism and privilege, while Brügger’s character revels in a performance of colonialism. But at the end of the day, I’m not convinced he’s accomplished anything all that different.
In interviews, Brügger clearly sees himself as a crusader against corruption. He’s thoroughly aware that he’s on ethically shaky grounds: “I am fully aware that in some regards the ethics in my film, to say it simply, kind of suck. They do.” But his behavior is in the service of two higher goals: getting western audiences to pay attention to an African story, and to exposing those involved in the diamond trade. He asserts that Liberia has identified eight Cortzen-like characters in their diplomatic corps thanks to his efforts.
But Liberia hardly seems grateful for the assistance: they’re attempting to extradite him and to prosecute him for bribery and fraud. This, in turn, supports Brügger’s narrative: not only are Liberia’s officials so corrupt that they sell diplomatic passports, they are shameless in persecuting him, a journalist just doing his job, rather than rooting out corruption in their ranks. There’s a more complicated story that Brügger isn’t interested in addressing. He dismisses the legitimacy of the government of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf by noting that a truth and reconciliation commission placed her on a list of people who should be disqualified from office for her financial support of Charles Taylor, rather than engaging in the complicated debate over whether the TRC’s recommendations were the right ones.
It’s hard to see how Brügger’s expose is going to lead to real change. It’s likely to be harder to obtain diplomatic credentials to set oneself up as a diamond smuggler… but Brügger’s film shows that this was hardly easy to begin with, and that credentials likely wouldn’t have enabled him to leave the country with those diamonds, without needing to conceal them, as his diamond mining partner delicately puts it, “in your pants”. In an interview, Brügger rubbishes the Kimberly Process, the regulatory system designed to make it difficult to sell diamonds from conflict regions, but the example he gives – DeBeers being pressured by the French government to leave CAR – seems to point to Kimberly’s impact, at least on the legitimate diamond trade. The real problem is that CAR has a deeply corrupt and ineffective government and has no control over most of its territory. While Brügger’s story brings that truth home in an interesting way, CAR’s problems aren’t news to anyone who studies Central Africa, and he offers no helpful advice beyond “Don’t trust white guys who are interested in Africa.”
Brügger has told interviewers that he wanted to make a film that portrayed Africa in a different light than those commissioned by NGOs, which he believes misrepresent the continent: “Part of the doing-good industry is painting things in blackest black — it’s almost like a pornography of suffering. Which is necessary if the N.G.O.’s are to get funding for doing what they are doing.” Lots of documentary-makers would argue that their work is awfully far from that bleak narrative, but there’s certainly no shortage of documentaries that portray African suffering as a way of raising funds. But Brügger’s alternative is even darker. Anyone who’s given agency in his film (not the Pygmies, who aren’t permitted to be anything but stage-dressing for his character’s colonialist fantasies) is portrayed as corrupt, selfish and amoral, and Brügger explicitly questions the motives of anyone who would come to a place like Bangui, noting “Of course, a country such as this works as a magnet for white men with hidden agendas.” It’s worth considering whether the white men and women working for NGOs and aid organizations in countries like the CAR have hidden and damaging agendas – the white savior complex, the continuation of a dependency on aid over development through trade – but Brügger’s analysis isn’t nearly that subtle. He’s interested in the persistence of a class of amoral raiders raping the continent and, unable to put one of these criminals on camera, he becomes one.
I realize it sounds like I’m trashing this film and the man who made it, and, to some extent, I certainly am. But it’s more complicated than that. As Aaron Leaf notes in the introduction to an interview on (the indispensable blog) “Africa is a Country” with the filmmaker, “Even if you like Mads Brügger’s documentaries, chances are you hate him.”
I’ve now spent a dozen hours watching the film twice and reading about it because I’m fascinated by the challenge Brügger chose to take on. It’s difficult to gain direct attention to countries like the CAR, and Brügger captures our attention. That he falls far short of the film I’d like to see him make – one that looks at the complicated and contradictory motives of Africans and non-Africans trying to transform the continent, one that offers solutions not just critiques – is not just a comment on his limitations, but on the difficulty of the task. I didn’t like “The Ambassador”, but it’s given me a great deal to think about, and I want you to watch it because I want more people to join in the discussion of whether a film like this one is more helpful than exploitative, whether Brügger’s motivations justify his ethical lapses, whether playing a colonialist is critique or privileged playacting, and whether “The Ambassador” is anything more than handing out $5 bills to everyone you encounter in the airport.