The practicalities of corruption

The Urban Nomad Film Fest opens tomorrow with a screening of ‘The Ambassador,’ an audacious yet hysterical documentary about procuring blood diamonds in the Central African Republic, and a question-and-answer session with its director Mads Brugger

By Marcus Aurelius  /  Contributing reporter

Thu, Apr 25, 2013 - Page 12

The Urban Nomad Film Festival was born 12 years ago when good friends Sean Scanlan and David Frazier started doing events with an artistic element to them. “We wanted to get away from just beer and girls,” Frazier said.

“It basically started because we had an abandoned warehouse where we could hang a screen and bring in turntables to create a trippy, visual party,” Scanlan added. “Some of the graffiti works from the parties in the early days still exists, which is interesting considering all the changes Huashan has undergone.”

The first few years of Urban Nomad were weekends with friends who made short films and a projection booth with stacks of VHS tapes. “In 2007, we went to a full week,” said Frazier. “That was the same time we started trying to figure out how to source feature films. Now we are getting films that have premiered at Sundance.”

IT’S A MADS WORLD

This year’s Urban Nomad is spread out over two weeks and starts off with a bang because of the screening of the controversial documentary The Ambassador, as well as a question-and-answer session with director Mads Brugger.

In the film, Brugger buys a Liberian diplomatic passport and heads to the Central African Republic. “In 2007, I began researching the selling and buying of diplomatic credentials and passports,” said Brugger in a Skype interview with the Taipei Times. “Then I realized that if this is possible, it would grant me access to a very closed and secretive environment which you never get to see in most documentaries. This is the inner sanctuaries and hallways of power in a failed African state.”

He continued, “In a way, a diplomat is a kind of super journalist. They have access to people and power. They know rumors and have access to key personas. This is what journalists can only dream about. I thought it was a very thrilling idea.”

Brugger has no qualms about making himself a character in his movies. “In my films, I am a piece of fiction myself, but everything around me is very much for real,” he said. “I would call this hybrid films. It’s fact and reality with elements of fiction.”

When coming up with the ideas for his movies, Brugger tries to ad-lib the plot. “We don’t plan much,” he said. “That’s why I consider my films to be documentaries because for me the definition of documentaries is where you are open to change and to whatever reality throws at you. What I do is plan and elaborate a lot on the characters I play. Then I also construct situations and scenarios which are plot generating, which will cause a lot of game play to happen.”

Brugger added, “Going to North Korea with a spastic handicapped comedian will definitely generate narrative,” he said, referring to The Red Chapel, another of his documentaries that will be screened at Urban Nomad.

HEART OF DARKNESS

“In the Central African Republic, a day is like a week in the States or anywhere else,” Brugger said when he was detailing some of the troubles he had. “The Central African Republic is basically a place where everyone is using everybody. It’s the end station of corruption. It’s the final stage of corruption.”

Aware of this fact, Brugger was constantly able to outsmart swindlers by using their greed as a plot device. “As with most diplomats, I would have several agendas. It is noble for diplomats to have a pro bono, do good agenda,” he said. “They want to stop starvation or HIV or they’re setting up a hospital to inoculate these children with this vaccine and so on. And besides that, they are engaged in ruthless exploitation of the natural resources of the place.”

Brugger said that the right disguise was needed to move around the country. “If I were to say, as a diplomat, I’m here because I want to invest in illegal diamonds… that would be very undiplomatic of me. On the other hand, I am working on setting up a match factory, people will think ‘how very sweet and naive, but he’s probably an idiot.’”

Predictably, Brugger got himself into a lot of precarious situations, and a few didn’t make the film. He cites one example of being stopped by police when returning home from a nightclub and brought to a “medieval-looking police station” and interrogated by an officer who “was clearly on drugs while the radio was playing Barbie Girl by Aqua.”

“They thought we were mercenaries and talked about transferring us to the central prison in Bangui,” a notorious place that Brugger said “you will not get out of as a coherent human being.” They were eventually released.

THE AMBASSADOR’S CREDENTIALS

The Ambassador, the festival’s opening movie, has generated a lot of discussion since it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. “People who are turned off with the film are uncomfortable with the way I employ comedy and humor in the film because it is making fun of pygmies, for instance,” Brugger said. “It’s outside of most people’s comfort zone. But most people realize that if I hadn’t made the film the way I made it, they would have never seen a film about what is going on in the Central African Republic.”

After The Ambassador was released, there were a few people that weren’t very happy with it, including many people in power in Liberia. “The president of Liberia said on a number of occasions that he wanted Denmark to arrest and extradite me,” Brugger said.

“He said he would form a commission on how it was possible for me to purchase a diplomatic passport. But I think along the line they realized that if they do start this investigation, they are basically digging their own grave.”

While there have been critics, Brugger said that he enjoys the reactions of Africans the most when they view The Ambassador. “A film like this is a divider. Some people hate it. Some people love it. What’s important for me is that more than most of the Africans I’ve met that have seen the film are very excited about it,” he said. “They support the film and think the film is a landmark film in the way it documents the practicalities of corruption.”