Docutopia #13: Exploitation or Exposé? The Fine Balancing Act of Documentary Filmmaking

Nonfiction films often toe a fine line between exploitation and exposé. Is Michael Moore lampooning the “Pets or Meat” lady in that classic rabbit-skinning scene in the 1986 classic Roger and Me, or is he forcefully conveying the hardscrabble struggles of the economically dispossessed in Flint, Michigan? Is Errol Morris making fun of the old woman telling rambling stories about her family and her pet dog in the 1978 Gates of Heaven, or is he painting an evocative portrait of loneliness? Are these masters of documentary merely manipulative tricksters, treating their subjects unfairly for the pure enjoyment of the viewing audience, or is what they’re putting on screen more complicated than that?

In a 2009 study called “Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work,” the Center for Social Media identified several concerns revolving around the potential problematic aspects of the relationship between those doing the recording and those being recorded.

“In thinking about their subjects,” the report stated, “filmmakers typically described a relationship in which the filmmaker had more social and sometimes economic power than the subject.”

Danish director Mads Brügger is probably not familiar with the Center for Social Media’s study.

In the filmmaker’s new documentary The Ambassador, which opens theatrically in New York today, the white, privileged Brügger travels to Africa and poses as a diplomat, where he clandestinely records several conversations with the powerful, raises the hopes of several local Africans with the bogus promise of building a match factory, and contributes healthily to the illegal trade of “blood” diamonds.

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. Like Borat, whose own faux-racism is meant to reveal the real racism that exists in the Americans he meets, Brügger (the character, not necessarily the filmmaker) often exhibits a seemingly tongue-in-cheek xenophobic racism, meant to highlight the prejudices of those around him. Several times he offers up bigoted statements about the Chinese: “Not to be racist,” he says, “but I have a problem with Asians.”

But 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.

It should come as little surprise that Brügger’s film comes with the backing of Lars von Trier’s production company, Zentropa. Like Von Trier’s The Idiots or Breaking the Waves, in which entirely offensive premises get twisted around by film’s end to make moralistic judgments on society, Brügger wants to expose, not exploit. But arguably like Von Trier, Brügger’s gonzo neocolonialist journey creates some collateral damage along the way.

While he 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. When he hires two Pygmy assistants, their blank stares are used in the same manner a conventional comedy director might cut away to a dog. Thus, with Brügger’s Pygmy jokes, along with the way he treats his fixer assistant, a local African who is not let in on the filmmaker’s ruse, the only thing he’s revealing are his own racial and colonialist insensitivities.

According to the Center for Social Media’s “Honest Truths” report, many documentary filmmakers acknowledge there isn’t always an obligation to protect their subjects, particularly if “the filmmaker found [them] ethically lacking, for instance, because of politically or economically corrupt acts.” But by demeaning those less powerful than him, Brügger steps over the line.

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.

Likewise, The Ambassasor is a mixed bag. Brügger can be hilarious as a hapless diplomat who tries to navigate his way through the African underworld. At one point, he “accidentally” drops his long-sought-after diamonds, spilling them out on his hotel room floor and evoking Woody Allen sneezing into a pile of precious cocaine. Or when he liberally hands out “envelopes of happiness” (his euphemism for bribes) or makes blatantly unethical statements about which no one bats an eye (“If you mix business and politics, wonderful things can happen!” he cheers).

Personally, I’ve never been one for report cards, and I’m willing to forgive Brügger a lot for his project’s larger ambitions. Like Michael Moore, he’s a devious chronicler of cruel ironies and unjust societies, and his politics are ultimately in the right place. But even the best documentary filmmakers need to know who and what is fair game.

 

Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, and Slate. He is currently a regular contributor to Variety, The Wall Street Journal Online, Filmmaker Magazine, The Utne Reader, and writes the ReelPolitik blog for Indiewire.com.

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