How does one become a Liberian diplomat? For Mads Brügger, the Danish director of the new documentary "The Ambassador," all it took was a $150,000 payment to a Dutch diplomatic title broker. Three weeks later, he had a Liberian diplomatic passport and credentials naming him the Liberian ambassador-at-large to the Central African Republic (C.A.R.), signed by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
"The Ambassador" is a darkly comic look at corruption in Africa in which Brügger uses his diplomatic status to conspire with corrupt C.A.R. officials to transport blood diamonds out of the country. Along the way, Brügger exposes the murky underbelly of honorary diplomats, some of whom buy their diplomatic status to conduct shady business deals.
"I was looking for a failed African state, an out-of-sight, out-of-mind country," Brügger told The Washington Diplomat in a recent interview. "In the world of diplomacy, being sent to the C.A.R. is the ultimate punishment. It had to be that you drank too much or maybe were involved in some criminal affair, so the diplomats who end up in places like the C.A.R. have to be very strange people."
The film premiered at Sundance last month. Brügger's first film, "The Red Chapel," a documentary about an absurd cultural exchange in North Korea, won the World Cinema Dramatic Jury Prize at Sundance in 2010. Both documentaries had the director using a fake identity — he went to North Korea with two friends posing as a pro-communist comedy troupe for "The Red Chapel" — to enter dangerous territory and expose its secrets using satire that doubles as a sad commentary on reality.
And while highly entertaining (Brügger comes to the C.A.R. to supposedly build a match factory staffed by pygmies for their "magical" qualities), that reality was also deeply disturbing to some viewers. Brügger's Liberian "ambassador" is an eccentric, scheming, semi-racist opportunist whose machinations to smuggle blood diamonds may have had real-life repercussions — a top security figure, who met with the director several times, was assassinated over the course of the film.
Brügger talked to The Washington Diplomat about his African adventure and the broader theme of shady diplomats exploiting their bought titles in developing countries.
Q: How did you get the idea to buy a diplomatic title?
A: In 2007, I became aware of these diplomatic title brokers who sell diplomatic status on the Internet. There are desperate African countries and some Pacific Ocean states where you can buy diplomatic status. Actually for some time, I was in the pipeline to become a trade associate for Vanuatu.
Q: What's the point of buying a diplomatic passport?
A: The advantages you get and the protection you get from becoming a consul in these places like the Central African Republic is worth a lot of money, to some people.
Q: So how did you go about buying your way into this world?
A: I found about 10 of these companies and some are con men and some are bona fide and actually will deliver. I paid $150,000, but it depends on what kind of position you want. Do you want to be a low-level diplomatic envoy, or would you like to be a consul or a trade attaché? From Liberia, I purchased an ambassador-at-large title and an honorary general consul title. I got two. It was an offer they made and I said, 'The more the merrier' — like a two-for-one special.
Q: Who are these people selling diplomatic passports?
A: In the film, we encounter two diplomatic title brokers. First, I dealt with the Evans brothers, who run diplomaticpassport.com. Now their site is more or less closed down — I think because of my film. They are based in Portugal, but they're British, and they're actually a second-generation diplomatic title brokerage.
Q: How common is it for countries to sell diplomatic titles?
A: Well, I also dealt with a Dutch diplomatic title broker named Wilhelm Sissen, who is based in Sierra Leone. They sell diplomatic titles for Sierra Leone and Liberia and they told me they had actively secured 25 diplomatic titles for their clients. Sissen befriended the former minister of finance in Liberia, during the Charles Taylor administration, who is well connected in Liberia. In the '90s, some 2,000 diplomatic titles were sold in Liberia. Guinea also sells titles and so do some countries in the South Pacific.
Q: Why did you choose the C.A.R. as your setting for the film?
A: I was looking for a failed African state, an out-of-sight, out-of-mind country. I got a passport and accreditation. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf fired all of her ministers for massive corruption, including the minister of foreign affairs, whom I was dealing with at the time, so everything was stalled.
Q: But eventually you were able to buy a diplomatic passport from Liberia?
A: Yes, I had my passport about three to four weeks after I paid. I was playing the role of consul of Liberia to the C.A.R. and I was pretty scared of what would happen if someone would call Monrovia and ask 'who is this guy,' because who knows what they'd say.
Q: Does corruption go all the way to the top in these countries?
A: In the film, I met with the current minister of finance in Liberia who signed my accreditation papers, so that's a good example of what level we are talking about. My accreditation papers were also signed by Ellen Johnson, the president of Liberia.
Q: Did you meet other bogus diplomats in the C.A.R.?
A: The Danish consul in Bangui is a Frenchman; he's also the ambassador of the Knights of Malta. He spoke no Danish. He had pictures of the Danish queen and prince framed in my office, but it was my impression that he'd never been to Denmark.
Q: But are some of the "honorary" diplomats legit?
A: Some of them are genuine for sure. As a journalist, I've been to lots of places off the beaten track and when you go to third world countries, the diplomats you meet there, they are usually really weird people. If you're sent to the Central African Republic, in the world of diplomacy, that is a punishment. That is the ultimate punishment. It had to be that you drank too much or maybe were involved in some criminal affair, so the diplomats who end up in places like the C.A.R. have to be very strange people.
Q: Did you have a plan involved for how the film would play out, or did you just go there and see what happened?
A: Once I set out on this journey of becoming a diplomat, I wondered where it would go — what kind of people I'd meet, what I'd encounter. The ultimate goal is to document and expose this very hidden world. My cover story was that I was going to start a matches production company. I partnered with this very corrupt, sinister member of the C.A.R. parliament, Mr. Gilbert — he was like a comic book villain, but I needed him to gain access to the blood diamonds. He's a comic book villain with a big Mercedes and a gold tooth. I invested in one of his diamond mines. We flew into the wilderness to inspect the mine and get diamonds in return.
Q: How long were you in the C.A.R. filming?
A: Seven weeks. I was pushing the envelope, so after seven weeks I thought it was time to go.
Q: How did you get away with this? No one asked you who the hell you were?
A: No one ever questioned who I was or what I was doing there. I was dressing as a weird colonial character from the '70s with tight business suits, knee-high leather boots and so on. I would tell people I was the consul and ambassador-at-large to the Central African Republic. The Austrian consul asked me who I was once. I said my father made some investments in logging in Liberia. That was it and then I asked him if he'd like to have more caviar.
Q: Were you filming surreptitiously?
A: We shot the film with a hidden camera in an office and the scenes outside the office were made with a small Canon EOS camera. It looks like a cheap, touristic camera, but it shoots hide-grade HD video. In the C.A.R., everyone thought that a camera this small couldn't possibly be related to television or film. I told people the cameraman was my press officer and he was documenting my adventures in the C.A.R., but no one cared really.
Q: So officials were willing to engage in shady deals right on tape?
A: Mr. Gilbert would be sitting there telling me that what we are talking about is extremely secret and if anyone finds out, he and I would go to jail. At the same time, the camera was literally five inches from his face. He thought nothing of it. No one ever told me to turn the camera off. I even met with Minister of Defense Jean Francois Bozize. He had no problem with me filming him.
Q: Did you bring lots of money to bribe people?
A: I brought a lot of money with me, because I knew we'd need to hand out a lot of 'envelopes of happiness,' but in that way, it's a very transparent film. All the corruption and bribery I was involved in is declared in the film.
Q: How much did all those bribes cost you?
A: I didn't add it all up in total. Tens of thousands including the investment in the diamond mine.
Q: What did you do with the diamonds — did you actually smuggle them out of the country?
A: No, I didn't leave the country with the diamonds. They were blood diamonds with no papers on them from the north of the Central African Republic. I took them to a Syrian-Armenian diamond dealer in Bangui to sell them. We gave the money we made to local partners to facilitate the incorporation of the matches factory. When I left Bangui for Paris, inside the custom area, the mining gendarme said, 'Good morning, Monsieur Consul, how many karats do you have?' — because they knew I'd been to the mining area.
Q: Did you feel like you were taking a huge risk in making a movie like this in an unstable country like the C.A.R.?
A: The normal modes of social interaction don't work there, so while you are enjoying yourself having drinks with the son of the president, you could later on find yourself locked in a dungeon for something completely out of control. Once you realize that, you relax in a weird kind of way.
Before I was there, there was a group of Slovenian tourists who were arrested and charged with plans to create a coup there. I tried to stay away from diplomats from countries who would have the resources to look into what kind of person I am.
Q: So you kept a low profile?
A: Not that much. I rented the penthouse of the Hotel Bangui. No one said, 'What are you actually doing here?' The C.A.R. is the ultimate hideaway, a country like this attracts the weirdest kind of shady people.
Q: And what's been the result of the film so far?
A: The Dutch diplomatic title broker diplomatic services filed a lawsuit against us. He accused me of being a crook and a villain on Dutch TV.
Q: You're a family man right? How does your wife feel about you jetting off to places like North Korea and the C.A.R. to make films?
A: Yes, I have a wife and two boys, [ages] 3 and 6. This comes after me having been in North Korea, so my wife is used to dealing with such situations, she's used to it. She knew that was part of the package when she married me.
Q: Was it more difficult making your first film in North Korea or this one?
A: The North Koreans were easier to deal with. They're hard-line Stalinists — once you've made a deal with them, they stick to it. North Korea is the ultimate slave state. The worst dictatorship in mankind. There's an ambience of pure horror that stays with you for a long time. It's terrible beyond anything you would encounter anywhere else.
Q: In your first film, "The Red Chapel," you duped the North Koreans into believing you were going there to document a Danish-North Korean cultural exchange. Was there any blowback once that film came out?
A: The North Korean ambassador to Sweden faxed a letter to the Danish Broadcasting Corp. saying that I'm a despicable person. You'll never get into the minds of a North Korean person. You'll meet well-educated people there who think there are only six to seven countries outside North Korea. There's a gap of 50 years in knowledge; they don't know about the Beatles, let alone iPods.
Q: Where there any other Westerners in North Korea when you were there?
A: There was just me and a Norwegian marathon runner. This was 2006. They let other people compete but they're not allowed to win. I think they faked the ending — the Norwegian looked to be winning but then suddenly he wasn't seen any more, they cut to two North Koreans crossing the finish line.
Q: What kind of film do you hope to make next?
A: I have some ideas but they won't involve role-playing as extreme as this. I think I've reached the end of this method for me. No one I dealt with on this project was able to find out about me just by Googling my name, but now I think I'd really need to change my appearance to get away with extreme role-playing again. I used my full name, which is Mads Cortsen Brügger, this time and I think that confused some people.
Q: Did you keep any souvenirs from your time in the C.A.R.?
A: I still have my diplomatic passport. It's still valid. It's the ultimate souvenir. I won't use it again though. My career in African diplomacy is over.
Q: Perhaps you could apply for a U.S. visa using your Liberian diplomatic passport?
A: Maybe. And two hours later, I'd be in Guantanamo.
About the Author
Dave Seminara is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and a former diplomat based in Northern Virginia.