The best documentaries tell substantive truths and how they tell them can be as compelling as the subjects they tackle.
The Ambassador, the opening night film of the second Antenna Documentary Festival, which has just wrapped in Sydney, uncovers extremely chilling facts about the illegal trade in diplomatic passports and how these documents are subsequently used to cover up crime. In this case, the acquisition of blood diamonds in the highly corrupt Central African Republic. The director, Mads Brügger, puts his life in danger by acting out this scenario by posing as a Liberian diplomat who wants to open a match factory.
This film won many fans when it screened in Sundance early last year, at the opening night of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in November and, more recently, in Sydney. But it has many detractors too who dislike the kookiness of the film. Indeed, Brügger’s behaviour is reminiscent of Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat and his ethics and attitudes are highly questionable, especially toward the pygmies that he encounters. There is something deeply annoying about the blatant nature of the masquerade and the hypocrisy that underlies it and it takes away from the impact of his revelations.
Brügger’s style could not be more different to Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss, an examination of a triple murder – the perpetrators wanted the victims’ red Chevrolet Camaro – and the state of mind of a goofy-looking 28-year-old American eight days away from his execution, his co-accused, his victims and their families, and an executioner.
Herzog once said that he is not an interviewer and that, rather, he has conversations with his subjects. At times in Into the Abyss he certainly wanders around the topic, tells inmates he doesn’t expect them to talk about particular things, and makes comments that clearly baffle them. It is sacrilegious to say – Herzog has a habit of making brilliant films and has won practically every significant award on the planet after all – but it was difficult not to inwardly groan at what he doesn’t ask, what he doesn’t follow through on.
But it doesn’t take long to see that Herzog’s preoccupations are not with guilt or innocence but with human nature. His extraordinary gentleness, lack of judgement and compassion allows his subjects to tell their own tales in their own time and creates the space for the bigger truths to slowly unfurl, including the notion that some people never have a chance because of their upbringing.
The prize winners from the festival are:
SBS Award for Best International Documentary:
Planet of Snail, dir. Seung-Jun Yi
(Special mention – Call Me Kuchu)
Award for Best Australian Documentary:
My Thai Bride, dir. David Tucker
(Special mention – The Soldier)
ABC Award for Best Australian Short Documentary:
Feel Home, dir. Lee Blignaut
About this writer
Patrick Lindsay's book shows that to understand the Anzac spirit we must first understand the spirit of Gallipoli.
The untold story of Australian soldiers caught up in war and revolution during the invasion of Russia in 1918-1919.
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