SCREENINGS & MEANINGS
Telling truths through a lens: by all means necessary
In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary
I’ve been involved for several years in helping organize and program Ottawa’s One World Film Festival, the 23rd annual edition of which just concluded very successfully this past Sunday. Presenting thought-provoking documentaries from around the world, the festival focuses on compelling situations that raise issues of rights, power, justice, peace and the environment. Many of the 14 features in this year’s festival involve courageous acts of personal witness.
The Ottawa festival opened with the Canadian premiere of Eyes of Thailand, a moving look at how humans are rescuing and healing elephants that have suffered terrible injuries from the indiscriminate man-made cruelty of landmines. It closed with The Kingdom of Mr. Edhi, an inspiring portrait of how an unassuming older man and his wife have established, without any government or outside support, Pakistan’s largest network providing succor and shelter for abused women.
Several features addressed the upheavals associated with the Arab Spring and its aftermath. In Words of Witness, an engaging young female journalist follows the ups and downs of Egypt’s unfinished revolution, reporting from the frontlines despite the warnings of her worried mother. The Reluctant Revolutionary profiles a troubled Yemeni tour operator as he becomes a fixer for an intrepid Irish journalist going undercover to capture the truth of that country’s convulsions against dictatorship that have received comparatively little coverage in our media. Both films were strong Berlin film festival selections.
The West’s conflicted relationship with Africa, and vice versa, was the subject of several docs. Ghetto Millionaires shows the bizarre spectacle of poor Congolese men who manage to get to Europe, outfit themselves in high-fashion designer clothes, and return home to compete as celebrity show-offs.
You Decide! follows a Swedish journalist’s investigation of shady practices and human rights violations by a Swedish oil company in its African operations.
Of all the films chosen by the Ottawa festival, none is more absorbing, provocative and controversial than The Ambassador (http://www.theambassador.dk/), which was shown at a special advance screening in early September hot on the heels of its theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles. The film, which opened the International Documentary Film festival in Amsterdam last November, has generated lots of buzz on the festival circuit (including at Toronto’s HotDocs).
The Ambassador’s director and principal protagonist, Mads Brügger Cortzen, a well-known Danish journalist, author, radio producer and television personality, is an audacious and accomplished creator of sharply satirical documentary programs and feature films. He’s been called a cross between Michael Moore and Sacha Baron Cohen (of Borat notoriety). In the 2004 U.S. election year he travelled across America as manager of fake organization Danes for Bush. In The Red Chapel, which won the world cinema documentary prize at Sundance 2010, he and several accomplices went undercover to North Korea in the guise of a cultural-exchange comedy troupe in order to expose that tyrannical regime’s evil absurdity.
Interviewing Brügger by telephone from New York City, he told me that the idea for The Ambassador came to him a few years ago when he happened on a website offering African diplomatic titles for sale.
Plunging into this shady netherworld at considerable personal risk, he made contact with an unscrupulous Dutch broker and for a large sum (US$135,000) assumed the role — “I did my utmost to present the ultimate African fantasy of the rich white diplomat-businessman” — with a mission to reveal the gross corruption and crass exploitation that such transactions invite. Needless to say, those with diplomatic privileges make ideal smugglers.
Brügger, who is nervy enough to go by his own name as Mr. Cortzen rather than use a pseudonym or fake name, chooses Liberian accreditation to the Central Africa Republic (CAR) for the diplomatic ruse in which he will go to the CAR’s capital Bangui and pretend to set up a match factory employing Pygmies as a cover for acquiring blood diamonds. Why Liberia? Because, emerging from years of civil war, it has a history of selling diplomatic titles. And the CAR? “I wanted to make a film in the most extreme part of Africa.” As a “lawless” forsaken dark corner of French Africa — the “ultimate hideaway” chiefly infamous for its late, unlamented megalomaniac dictator “Emperor” Bokassa — it fit the bill, besides being rich in natural resources and ripe for plunder.
Brügger says his purpose is “to show an Africa stripped of
NGOs, Bono, child soldiers and kids with bloated bellies, to show the
kind of people you never meet in the documentaries; white businessmen
and diplomats, the fat cats in the urban centre, all the people . . .
having a great time. To show this Africa of the affluent I use ‘performative
journalism’ — instead of disguising as a fly on the wall
observing neutrally, I dress for my part and interact as an agent provocateur.” It
works surprisingly well as he soon gets access to the ruling elite, notably
the minister of mines and defence who is the president’s son, greased
with “envelopes of happiness” containing cash. The most amazing
scenes were recorded with a hidden camera and microphone though the setup
also included a bogus office with a secretary and press officer.
CONTROVERSIAL DOCUMENTARY — The Ambassador’s director and principal protagonist, Mads Brügger Cortzen, is a well-known Danish journalist, author, radio producer and television personality. The controversial film has received a lot of buzz on the festival circuit, writes Gerald Schmitz. (Photo: Johan Stahl Winthereik)
Playing such a dangerous game, Brügger told me he had no “plan b” escape route if found out. (An oafish head of security and former French legionnaire he dealt with was assassinated.) Going into the mining region he procures illicit diamonds from a sinister Monsieur Gilbert, and also meets with Pygmies (a pair of whom become his clueless assistants) to keep up appearances for the phony match factory project.
has a fascination with this exploited population who are sometimes even
hunted and eaten for their alleged magical powers.
While he respects traditional journalism, had he gone to the CAR in that capacity he would have been sent packing on the next plane.
An unamused Liberian president Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, anxious to turn the page from the country’s failed-state image, has threatened legal action against Brügger, though that’s unlikely to do anything but give The Ambassador more publicity. With all the media commentary surrounding its U.S. release, there may be a chance for wider distribution in Canada. Whenever that arrives or a DVD comes out, see for yourself. It’s a journey to the dark side of “diplomacy” you won’t soon forget.
Schmitz is an ambassador member of the Canadian Film Institute.