Mads Brugger's "The Ambassador" was one of the most talked about films at the Sundance Film Festival, generating buzz that's rare for a film in the festival's far-flung world documentary cinema competition. In my latest Docutopia column, I finally caught up with the film, upon its release in the U.S., and I think the movie opens up a valuable discussion on the ethics of documentary-making, which Brugger's film arguably lacks much of. As I wrote, "If there were an ethical report card for nonfiction filmmakers, Brügger would likely receive a failing grade."
"But that doesn’t mean he’s not entertaining... and it doesn't mean The Ambassador isn’t completely bereft of morality. On the contrary, Brügger’s grander aims are entirely moralistic. He’s trying to show the endemic corruption and lack of integrity that exists in certain parts of Africa, and the way wealthy Westerners cultivate sundry illegalities for their own selfish gain."
So what is it? Gonzo neocolonialist exploitation? Or bold expose of corruption at all levels of society? Maybe both?
The article goes on with some fruitful comparisons, I think, between the ethics of other prominent filmmakers, such as Michael Moore.
"While Brugger rightfully targets certain European powerbrokers that aid him in the purchase of diplomatic papers, he also seems to think Pygmies are funny, and sets up several gags around their exploitation.... Thus, like the political stunts of Michael Moore, sometimes they work brilliantly when the target is right, as in Bowling for Columbine, when he goes after K-mart for selling bullets; but not when that target is misplaced, as when he goes after ailing NRA president Charlton Heston in the same film, trying to make him feel responsible for the shooting death of a young girl.
Even the best documentary filmmakers need to know who and what is fair game.