Ambassador, The (US - BD RA)
Jonathan joins Mads Brügger on an absurd diplomatic journey to Africa...
This darkly comic, genre-bending piece of gonzo journalism from international provocateur Mads Brügger (filmmaker of Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Red Chapel) rips the corroded lid off the global scheme of political corruption and exploitation happening in one of the most dangerous places on the planet: the Central African Republic. Armed with a phalanx of hidden cameras, black-market diplomatic credentials and a bleeding-edge wit, Brügger transforms himself into an outlandish caricature of a European-African consul. As he immerses himself in the life-threatening underworld of nefarious bureaucrats, Brügger encounters blood diamond smuggling, bribery, and even murder -- while somehow managing to crack amazing razor-sharp barbs at every step along the way. From each absurdly terrifying/hilarious situation to the next, The Ambassador is a one-of-a-kind excursion from the man whom The Huffington Post has called "the most provocative filmmaker in the world." (From the Drafthouse Films synopsis)
Denmark is home to a lot of impressive, provocative filmmakers. Its the country we have to thank for the unusual work of Dogme 95 founders Lars von Trier (whose production house funded The Ambassador) and Thomas Vinterberg. Earlier this year I watched the Danish comedy Klown and was afraid I may have just seen something illegal. The countries filmmakers are known for pushing the boundaries of what is considered acceptable in mainstream film, yet nothing I've seen from these provocateurs fictional works matches the level of absurdity found in Mads Brügger's documentary The Ambassador. It is no surprise that some people have gone in believing the film is some sort of mockumentary. Partly because Mads is playing such a silly diplomatic character. He wears tall boots, describes himself as "pigment-challenged", and he is always smoking filtered cigarettes. Its believability is also threatened because there is so much corruption right out in the open on a constant basis. And yet, all of it is real.
Toward the very beginning we see Mads talking with a broker about obtaining a Liberian diplomatic passport. The man asks Mads to leave everything behind and follow him out side, but thanks to a hidden camera in his jacket we get to follow along. Then you hear those words that are usually only uttered in spy thrillers: "I don't want this conversation to be recorded". The broker then begins to openly discuss how valuable it is to be able to travel in and out of a diamond-producing zone with diplomatic immunity. It is all right there on the table. The Ambassador is filled with moments like this. Mads rubs elbows with powerful people, handing over "envelopes of happiness" to bribe his way into friendly relationships with influential leaders and department heads. Having such connections gives him leverage in the diamond trafficking business, which is his ultimate journalistic goal. Along the way he gives a brief but fascinating look into the history of the Central African Republic and its locations. When there isn't a shady deal on screen to keep your attention, you can count on there being an interesting history lesson.
Mads Brügger has a great politically incorrect sense of humor that he puts on display throughout the film. A lot of the tense reality of the situation is lightened by how playful he is. Watching him dance with a tribe of drunk Pygmies, tell ridiculous anecdotes, or say terrible things about the French and Chinese while his African cohorts nod along with him is darkly funny. Mads is assigned two Pygmies as personal assistants. I would have liked to see more interactions between Mads and his Pygmy assistants. They are from completely different worlds and make for an interesting combination. There is a great scene where they go on a boat ride down the river Obangui, soaking in some of the rural beauty of the country while Woody Guthrie's 'This Land is Your Land' plays. It gives a whole new meaning to the "diamond deserts" Guthrie sings about. With the help of some outsiders and a group of Pygmy workers, Mads starts a match production facility as a cover for his diamond operation. Mads clearly states in his narration that he knew the match company would never come to fruition, and he was giving these tribal employees-to-be a false sense of hope. He goes on to say that diplomats do this on a larger scale every day, and it is just part of their racket. He does more rationalizing in the commentary track, but it still left me feeling uneasy.
One thing The Ambassador does not do is sensationalize any of the material on screen. If you aren't paying attention, its highly possible that you could miss just how ridiculous some of the things happening in the film are. The narrative never stops to point at something absurd or analyze the legal boundaries that are being crossed. It simply informs and presents the details of the trip. Personally I liked the simple, modest approach, but it will undoubtedly bore some. Mads journey is a very compelling one if you give it your attention and really grasp just how risky the whole operation is. Since its release, The Ambassador has made some serious waves. One of the brokers he secretly filmed has taken down the front page of their website and replaced it with this. The broker Mads actually ended up dealing with in the film is outraged, and Liberia is seeking legal action against him. Even if the only thing that the film results in is these parties feeling embarrassed and cleaning up their acts, his endeavor will have been worth it.
Image Entertainment releases The Ambassador with a 1080p transfer, but none of the material in the film really necessitates the high definition treatment. A great deal of the film's footage is recorded on phones or hidden pinhole cameras. As a result, the quality of the image is all over the place, but this is the norm for the genre. Its especially expected because of how secretive Mads's mission was. He can't have a big film crew following him around. More often than not the footage is of a very low quality with lots of digital artefacting and murkiness. There is some good looking footage when Mads meets with an African tribe or visits a diamond mine. The colors of the orange soil and the lush green vegetation look great. I noticed in a couple darker scenes what appeared to be scanline patterns. All of the visual problems here come with the territory though, and the actual Blu-ray encode is not to blame.
I should point out that the English subtitles on this disc are not removable. Most of the talking in the film is in another language, and even the English is difficult to decipher through thick accents. I would never watch it without the subtitles track, but as a matter of principle I do not like forced subtitles. Image Entertainment's Klown Blu-ray was the same story. The audio on this release is mostly rough as you would expect. There is no lossless audio track, but the film really doesn't need one. Aside from the voice over and some background music, none of the audio would be enhanced by it. Instead we have a simple and serviceable Dolby Digital 2.0 track, and it gets the job done. Much of the secretly recorded dialogue is hard to make out, but the forced subtitles will ensure that you catch every bit.
Aside from a 16-page booklet that has some nice photos in it and a theatrical trailer, the only extra on this disc is an Audio Commentary by Director Mads Brügger. It's a great track though. Brügger provides a wealth of information that is not available in the film, and gives more back story into the history of the CAR and many of the people that he interacts with throughout the movie. You also get to hear Brügger explain his more of his feelings during some of the more tense scenes in the movie. Brügger doesn't exercise his sense of humor much, instead using the commentary track as a chance to give more insight into every scene. If you're a fan of the film and you're thirsty for more information, this is a track worth checking out.
There is a quote that always stuck with me from Warren Ellis's comic series 'Transmetropolitan'. The fictional gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem describes journalism as a gun with a single bullet: "Aim it right, and you can blow a kneecap off the world." Though The Ambassador isn't revelatory enough to cripple a system of such large-scale corruption, it is still a much needed exposé into the kind of back alley dealings that enable crooked commerce with third world countries. It is hilarious in its absurdity, often tense, and even serves as a fascinating educational look into the Central African Republic without ever relying on sensationalism. The Blu-ray format feels unnecessary given the quality of the footage used in the film. There's only a single commentary track for the extras, but it is a worthwhile listen if you enjoyed the film.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and DVD Special Edition resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Release Date: 23rd October 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Multiple Languages
Subtitles: English (forced)
Extras: Audio Commentary by Director Mads Brügger, Theatrical Trailer, 16-page Booklet
Easter Egg: No
Director: Mads Brügger
Cast: Mads Brügger
Length: 93 minutes
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