Collapsing the line between documentary and fiction

A new film, The Ambassador, exhibits "performance journalism," a combination of art and reporting

This week, you can on-demand a documentary that uses insanely unorthodox methods to get at the truth and judge for yourself whether this approach is acceptable for nonfiction, or not. The film in question is by Danish director Mads Brugger. The Ambassador restyles investigative journalism and documentary into something we could call “performance journalism,” a one-of-a-kind combination of performance art, reporting, post-colonialism, and suicidal tendencies. Brugger himself calls it “performative journalism.”

You really must watch it. (If you don’t do VOD, the film is out in select theaters in the US on August 29.)

This is stunt documentary at the edge of reason. Playing a character called Mr. Cortzen (Brugger’s birth name), the filmmaker pays a good deal of entirely real money, $150,000, to an oily businessmen in order to obtain diplomatic credentials.

Once the Dane becomes a new Liberian ambassador to the Central African Republic, with papers signed by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, “Mr. Cortzen” sets about trying to export blood diamonds from the CAR. The film begs the question: What’s made up or instigated here? Are films like Brugger’s unnecessarily provocative, and is he putting his own life and the lives he intersects with in too great jeopardy? And does Brugger really need to ham it up as a cartoonish imperialist, undermining the film’s claim to be journalism? Brugger has said that he wanted his “’character’ to be packed with various archetypes, and characters from comic books: Dr. Müller in Tintin, Bernard Prince (a Belgian comic book hero), even the Man with The Yellow Hat from Curious George.” His clothes in the film, accordingly, are very a much a costume: a cigarette holder; cuff links; riding boots. From a filmmaking perspective, the grotesque “Mr. Cortzen” makes the documentary that much livelier. Although perhaps no longer a documentary.

And that’s part of what’s fascinating about film: it blurs the lines between fictive theater and documentary in such a big way that the two forms collapse. Brugger didn’t just do research for the film: he prepared for his character as an actor would for almost three years, “because I wanted to really go into detail with my persona,” he has said. “I noticed all the telltale signs, the do’s and don’ts of how diplomats behave and carry themselves.” His performance as a mock-Kipling colonialist can be cognitively dissonant, as “Mr. Cortzen” prances past so much real poverty, child labor, and physical violence in full fop regalia, makes bigoted comments, and appears to mock drunken pygmies.

While in character, Brugger hands out envelopes with wads of cash and visits a militarized diamond mine, and the viewer might wonder not only about his sanity but also about the wondrous state of Danish arts funding. Who, exactly, is underwriting all of these stuffed envelopes? (The film was funded by an equally outrageous Dane, Lars Von Trier, via his production company Zentropa, though that doesn’t quite explain Brugger’s profligacy: How much money could he have actually had to spend?)

Brugger transgresses many boundaries by playing a character in a purported documentary and also by filming much of his doc secretly on a cell phone or obscured micro-cameras. In addition, he lies to interviewees. His wanton mixture of fiction and fact can make Mike Daisey look like a truth-teller.

All the same, The Ambassador is a crack investigative work that could not be attained by ordinary measures. The film proves once and for all that ambassadorial credentials can indeed be bought and sold. While staying in character, Brugger, who is now is under legal threat by the Liberian government, managed to get images of children working in diamond mines that would be the envy of any human rights organization.

Brugger is hell-bent on making his name synonymous with performance journalism. His previous doc, The Red Chapel, (go watch it on Netflix streaming) was also infiltration/satire: Brugger filmed in North Korea pretending to be part of a comic theater troupe. Together, Brugger’s movies give Sasha Baron Cohen and Michael Moore a run for their money. Unlike some films by those directors, The Ambassador manages to justify at least some of the humiliation of ordinary people, as many of them happen to be absolute scoundrels.

Despite its blurred lines and murky methods, The Ambassador is an anxiety-producing, sometimes fantastic emanation from the future. It is of a genre whose time is nearly (but not quite) here, for better or worse.

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Alissa Quart is a CJR columnist and contributing editor. She is the author of two books, Branded and Hothouse Kids. Her third, about American outsiders, comes out in 2013. She is also senior editor of The Atavist and an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School.