Corruption and greed on screen

A new documentary on blood diamonds from Lars von Trier's company is as controversial as anything the director has done himself. Geoffrey Macnab reports

It is not often that film companies preparing movies need to set aside thousands of dollars for bribes and blood-diamonds in their budgets. This was what happened to Lars von Trier's Zentropa when the Danish outfit set to work on its feature documentary, The Ambassador, which premieres at the Sundance this month.

The film, largely shot in Liberia and the Central African Republic, follows the faltering attempts of its director, the satirical journalist Mads Brugger, to gatecrash the nefarious world of African diamond-smuggling.

Brugger's plan was to "operate freely beyond all moral boundaries while still being a respected member of society... what I am talking about of course is life as an African diplomat."

The stakes are high indeed. As a passport broker tells him early on in the film, the fake diplomatic credentials he needs can cost as much as a million euros. If his adventure turns out badly, he is warned, he is very likely to end up "dead in a ditch". However, if he has the magic papers, he will be able to wander around with $10m (£6.5m) in his briefcase.

"If the Congo is the heart of darkness, this [the Central African Republic] is the appendix," Brugger suggests. "Of course, a country such as this works as a magnet for white men with hidden agendas."

Brugger's producer Peter Engel was the one entrusted with coming up for the cash for the film-maker's false passport and his bribery money.

"The problem with the budget was not the passport. We bought the passport and we got an invoice," Engel recalls. "The problem was the envelope of happiness, when we were paying $30,000 to a lawyer in Liberia to get access to the President." Now Engel is in the unenviable position of having to explain to one of his main financiers – the state-backed Danish Film Institute – how the production team for the movie managed to spend thousands of dollars without getting so much as a receipt.

"This is money we can't show them invoices for but when you see the film, it's a kind of invoice [itself]," the producer suggests. Using hidden cameras, the film-makers filmed themselves handing over the bribes – so at least there is evidence they haven't held on to the money.

The paradox is that Brugger and his team were obliged to act corruptly in order to make a film about corruption. The Ambassador is both comical and uncomfortable to watch. Brugger comes across like a sleazy Danish version of Tintin, albeit without a dog. He acts up the part of the white colonialist, dressing in safari suits and affectedly smoking pipes or cigarettes through holders. He is every bit as outrageous on screen as his patron Lars von Triers is off it.

Brugger's "front" is that he is a businessman as well as a diplomat, and he plans to open up a match factory. With this in mind, he recruits a small army of Pygmy workers. The strangest, least politically correct scene in the film shows him in a Mike Tindall-like dance with these new associates, who have managed to get very drunk at his expense.

The film-makers have an eye for macabre comedy. Brugger makes absurd speeches. When he finally clinches a deal with diamond-mine owner Monsieur Gilbert, he toasts him with champagne – the very same vintage (he tells the nonplussed Gilbert) that Hitler drank before shooting himself.When Brugger finally gets his hands on some diamonds, he promptly drops them and is obliged to scramble on his hands and knees to retrieve them from underneath the sofa.

For producer Engel, one of the biggest challenges in making The Ambassador was ensuring that the film-makers returned to Denmark safely. "The Central African Republic is a very crazy country. You can 'buy' a killing for like $50," he reflects. And in spite of the money he spent, Brugger didn't have the correct papers. There was a constant danger he could be exposed or arrested.

Meanwhile, Brugger still has his diplomatic credentials for Liberia. If he tires of making films, another (possibly more lucrative) career remains open to him.

'The Ambassador' premieres at the Sundance Film Festival, 19 to 29 January

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