Image Entertainment // 2011 // 93 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // October 16th, 2012
To break the story, he must become the story.
The Occupy Wall Street movement mobilized a lot of interesting vocabulary to talk about the economic situation in the world. The idea of the "1%" and their extensive influence in the world of politics and economics was and remains a powerful metaphor for discussing influence. One of the interesting things about the American situation in particular is the extent to which those who engage in political influencing through economic means (lobbying, campaign donations, super PACS) feel free to do so quite out in the open. That's not the case in much of the world. Political influence (or, to be more blunt, corruption) is a more street-level affair. In many places, one can deposit a few dollars in the right hands to avoid lines and requirements for all kinds of rules and regulations. This process is more distributed; no one individual gets rich by being corrupt, and no one citizen pays an exorbitant fee to get something done. There is, however, a middle ground, in between the more "legitimate" kind of influence peddling and the ground-level version of slipping someone a $20 to look the other way. The Ambassador (Blu-ray) finds journalist Mads Brügger exploring this space, where money, politics, and corruption meet in ways that are obviously illegal but little remarked upon. Though it's a documentary that will make many deeply uncomfortable, it does expose the international diamond trade in interesting ways.
To expose the central African blood diamond trade, Mads Brügger gets a set of black market diplomatic credentials and goes "undercover" to expose the bureaucrats involved in covert smuggling of conflict diamonds out of Africa. Using hidden cameras and his sharp tongue, Brügger documents the rampant corruption that occurs when anyone with money appears.
First, the good. This is (as far as I can tell) an honest and unflinching portrait of the corruption currently running rampant throughout central Africa. Though Brügger has no interest in showing the existence of thriving and just African governments, he does have an interest in showing what a bag of money will get him in the world of blood diamonds. The answer is, of course, quite a lot. Since his papers aren't legit, it's hard to argue that he's using a longstanding political relationship or his good name to get what he wants. No, the reality is that Brügger walks in with cold, hard cash and walks away with pretty much whatever he wants. The sense is very much that his case is not exceptional, and his violations of decency are routine. Brügger is also a funny guy. His wry commentary on the process seems to go over the heads of his interlocutors, but will not be lost on an audience attuned to the horror of what his money is able to buy.
There is, however, a problem with The Ambassador. I can't say it's a film that didn't need to be made. However, I can say that it's possible it shouldn't have been made in this way. I say this because I'm pretty sure that most viewers won't be particularly surprised that central African governments, with few natural resources besides their diamonds, can be bought. That doesn't automatically mean that a documentary about it is out of bounds. However, I'm not entirely comfortable with the way that Brügger goes about exposing this corruption. His gonzo-influenced, wry take on the proceedings feels a bit exploitative at times. Sure, part of the reason he's undertaking this adventure is to expose the corruption (a laudable goal), but it also feels like he's doing it for the thrill or to have material he can be comic about. It's not quite Borat in exposing the folly of everyday people, but the film's use of humor produces that concern about exploitation. More problematically, the film actively supports corruption to get the raw material for the story. One hopes that the film mobilizes more opposition to this kind of corruption to make up for that support, but it's not a guarantee.
Whatever we might think of Brügger's methods, The Ambassador (Blu-ray) is above reproach. Shot mainly with hidden cameras and consumer equipment, The Ambassador looks a bit rough 'n' ready on this AVC-encoded 1080p. For what it is, the documentary looks good, but detail isn't startling and black levels can jump a bit. Colors, however, are well-saturated and there aren't any serious digital problems with the transfer. The audio is a stereo affair that is also captured catch-as-catch-can. For the most part, dialogue (in multiple languages) is clear, but subtitles are helpfully included.
The film's main extra is a commentary with Brügger, and it's as frustrating and revealing as the film itself. Brügger is obviously smart and can defend the film, but he didn't leave me feeling great about having watched it. There's also a sixteen-page booklet that includes photos and credits, and a digital copy of the film available for download.
The Ambassador is a provocative documentary that simultaneously exposes the corruption surrounding diplomacy and the blood diamond trade in central Africa while also providing a limited case for how far a documentary can be willing to go in search of its subject. Largely because of this excellent Blu-ray release, this film is recommended for rental to fans of gonzo documentaries and those looking for more info on the diamond trade.
The Ambassador is not guilty, but Brügger might be.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English, French, Danish, Sango)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Unrated