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Review: 'Ambassador' a high-risk exposé of the blood diamond trade

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
August 31, 2012 -- Updated 1652 GMT (0052 HKT)
Mads Brugger accepts the World Cinema Jury Prize for Documentary for
Mads Brugger accepts the World Cinema Jury Prize for Documentary for "The Red Chapel" during the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The filmmaker plays at a game of deceit to uncover corruption
  • Closest comparison may be Sacha Baron Cohen's knife-edge satirical rubes
  • "The Ambassador" is a damning movie on almost every level

Editor's note: This review may contain spoilers.

(CNN) -- The riskiest, trickiest, friskiest movie you can see right now happens to be a documentary. Don't let that put you off.

This is the story of an ambitious European entrepreneur who buys himself diplomatic immunity for less than $200,000. That would be Danish agent provocateur Mads Brugger, who greases several palms in a bid to get himself appointed the Liberian ambassador to the Central African Republic.

And why would anyone want to do that? Well, if you think Liberia could use some governmental oversight, wait until you see what goes on in the Central African Republic. While most of the populace is mired in poverty, let's not forget that this former French colony is also home to some of the world's richest diamond fields (which is where diplomatic status proves an invaluable investment).

We're used to seeing intrepid reporters digging out a story, but bribing officials to smuggle out blood diamonds? That's not something Robert Redford would have done, surely?

Brugger is short and bald, very white, and with a ginger goatee. In his previous film, "The Red Chapel," he sneaked a peek into North Korea under the guise of filming a theatrical troupe on a cultural exchange.

Here he dresses the part of a colonial martinet: tight jackets, jodhpurs, riding boots, and even affects a cigarette holder. He makes "humorous" remarks about Hitler in an effort to ingratiate himself with his new friends -- a ploy that works quite well, actually -- and liberally distributes what he calls "little envelopes of happiness" to smooth the way for his business proposal, a plan to build a match factory staffed by the country's pygmy tribe.

This is his cover story, a fig leaf for his smuggling plans, and an illustration of the kind of development that might genuinely help the indigenous peoples. But it's also a cruel hoax on the pygmies he meets, collateral damage in his bid to expose their corrupt political masters and the international diplomatic classes who feed off them.

Brugger is playing with dynamite here.

The closest comparison may be Sacha Baron Cohen's knife-edge satirical rubes. The film is often very funny even if you feel lousy about laughing -- except that Baron Cohen hasn't put his own neck on the line like this.

Central Africa can be a dangerous place at the best of times. For a long while Brugger is marooned there (his documentation has not come through, and in fairness to Liberia's authorities, it never does), and if he needs any reminder of what could go wrong, it all comes crashing home when one of his interviewees is assassinated. The movie's last 20 minutes play like a real-life John le Carré spy thriller: The wheels start to come off the deceit and we have to wonder if he'll be able to extricate himself without serious injury.

"The Ambassador" is a damning movie on almost every level.

You might have serious reservations about his methods, but you can't fault the man's nerve. It's extraordinary just how many illicit conversations with important men Brugger manages to get on camera. Already the Liberian president has called for an inquiry, though there seems little likelihood of similar soul-searching in the Central African Republic. In any case, Brugger has given his testimony and issued his indictments, too.

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