10 of Film’s Biggest Provocateurs

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Danish filmmaker and journalist Mads Brügger boasts a first name that seems worthy of his work, which he has dubbed “performative journalism.” He went undercover as a European Ambassador in the war-torn Central African Republic (CAR), armed with hidden cameras and credentials obtained on the black market. There, he brokered deals with corrupt blood diamond kingpins, leisurely traded diplomatic titles, and exposed a litany of murder, bribery, and bureaucrats from hell. The Ambassador balances a dark absurdity with terrifying revelations of exploitation, shocking fraudulence, and greed. The film opens in New York today, and we thought this would be a good time to explore some of cinema’s most controversial figures (mainly directors) — several of which Brügger has been compared to. The Huffington Post called him the “most provocative filmmaker in the world.” See if you agree after viewing our gallery after the jump.

Sacha Baron Cohen

While our list is composed of mainly directors, it’s hard to ignore the British man of a thousand faces, Sacha Baron Cohen — particulary since Mads Brügger has so frequently been compared to the comedic actor. Cohen’s latest personality to emerge was Admiral General Aladeen (pictured), sporting an orange Lamborghini, golden gun, and flanked by virgin bodyguards. The character was featured in The Dictator, about an eccentric and oppressive tyrant. Behind Cohen’s veil of humor and offensive stunts is an extreme form of cultural critique, formed from the very stereotypes he pokes at, reflecting and undermining the disturbing undercurrent of our nation’s prejudices and paranoia. Watching Borat is a squirm-inducing experience that exposes as it satirizes American attitudes.

Lars von Trier

It should come as no surprise that Lars Von Trier’s production company Zentropa financed Mads Brügger’s The Ambassador. We’ve been hearing about all the unsimulated sex that stars Shia LaBeouf and Charlotte Gainsbourg will be having in his upcoming Nymphomaniac, that chronicles one woman’s erotic journey of self-actualization. We’ve already seen plenty of Von Trierian flesh before in Antichrist and other movies by the Danish enfant terrible. Before that, Von Trier was making people cringe with “sympathetic” comments about Hitler during a Cannes Film Festival press conference, which resulted in a permanent ban from the prestigious event. Earlier in his career, Von Trier’s Zentropa became the first mainstream film company to make hardcore porn. All this isn’t unusual coming from a man who once said, “A film should be like a stone in your shoe.” He explained, “It’s quite important that it hurts you. I make my movies to provoke myself. I take a subject and a point of view that I do not share, and then I defend that.”

The Yes Men

You can automatically call yourself a provocateur if the United States Chamber of Commerce sues you because of your movie. That’s what happened to activist duo The Yes Men, created by Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos. The men go undercover, posing as the problematic people they are working to expose. Their alter egos have explored environmental disasters, the World Trade Organization, and much more. The political pranksters made two unforgettable films that detail their creative, satirical stunts: The Yes Men and The Yes Men Fix the World .

Ken Russell

You can see his films as flamboyant hot messes, or you can appreciate the polarizing work of English director Ken Russell in all its obsessive, oddball, visionary glory. Russell was no stranger to controversy throughout his career. He made a 1969 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love — which featured full-frontal male nudity — and one of the most contentious films about religion in 1971, The Devils (much of which was forced through cuts and edits). Censors always had a field day with the director, and the studio reactions to his critique of repressive societies demonstrated the same ignorance Russell sought to comment on.

John Waters

The Pope of Trash, John Waters, made a grand entrance in 1972 with his transgressive cult hit Pink Flamingos, starring drag queen Divine eating dog feces and mugging for the camera. Since then, he’s made a career of placing the fringe freaks and social outcasts on a pedestal in his darkly hilarious provocations. He said of his most famous film, Flamingos:

“It helped make trash more respectable. It lasted longer than I ever would have imagined. I still meet young kids who have just seen it and they react with the same disbelief that people did the first time. I’m proud of it. It was made to make fun of censorship laws at the time. All that has kind of faded. If I hadn’t done the scene where Divine ate dog shit, Johnny Knoxville would have done it in Jackass. The Jackass movies are the closest in spirit to Pink Flamingos than anything else.”

Michael Haneke

Stark and harrowing, Michael Haneke’s movies are not the type of films to spring on unsuspecting viewers. Where many filmmakers attempt to forge emotional connections between audiences and characters, Haneke avoids them at all costs. Watch Funny Games if you’re not sure what we’re talking about, where viewers are forced to endure the sadistic torture of an entire family. He wants to engage people, but not in the ways most are used to. “I’ve been accused of ‘raping’ the audience in my films, and I admit to that freely—all movies assault the viewer in one way or another. What’s different about my films is this: I’m trying to rape the viewer into independence,” he once explained. Haneke’s “appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus,” continues to provoke — even in his latest film bout two octogenarians facing the end of their lives.

Catherine Breillat

French provocateur Catherine Breillat has created her share of controversy since the 1976 premiere of the semi-autobiographical tale A Real Young Girl, about a teen’s sexual awakening. It was banned for over 20 years. Since then she’s created challenging films — exploring the impulses (often violent) and paradoxes of sexuality. There was also that time she cast porn star Rocco Siffredi in real sex scenes. She revealed her reasons behind the casting decision in a 1999 interview:

” …For some time now mainstream actors have refused to act in my films. They’re very careful to protect the positions they’ve acquired, and they’re very timid. They’re afraid to take risks and they don’t trust anyone. Very often, they read my scripts and suddenly they imagine their own execution of the film which, of course, is nothing like what I imagine the film will be. So I chose Rocco because he was interested and willing in playing the role.”

Michael Moore

Moore has taken aim at the American health care system (Sicko), the Iraq War (Fahrenheit 9/11), gun violence (Bowling for Columbine) since he entered cinema in 1989 with his Emmy award-winning film Roger & Me — about the negative economic impact that affected his hometown of Flint, Michigan by way of GM CEO Roger Smith. Spouting statements like, “These bastards who run our country are a bunch of conniving, thieving, smug pricks who need to be brought down and removed and replaced with a whole new system that we control,” and “We Americans suffer from an enforced ignorance,” doesn’t exactly warm people up to Moore’s point of view, but it hasn’t stopped him from trying.

Werner Herzog

Herzog’s earliest works, like Even Dwarfs Started Small (featuring animal violence and a cast of real dwarfs) and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (featuring troubled street musician Bruno S.) revealed the German director’s penchant for provocation. His fascination with colorful characters — like bizarre bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell — has always taken center stage, but Herzog also quietly reveals profound truths about everything from the nature of man (Grizzly Man), the jungle (Fitzcarraldo), and the justice system (Into the Abyss).

Harmony Korine

You don’t cast a Disney darling like Selena Gomez in your movie about four girls who commit a robbery to fund their boozy spring break, and wind up doing the dirty work of a drug/arms dealer (James Franco decked out in cornrows), unless you can wear the provocateur label proudly. Harmony Korine comes from the Larry Clark school of movie rabble-rousing. He wrote Kids, which Clark directed, peeling back the skin of adolescent controversies. Korine has alienated audiences with scenes in his films of a cat drowning and old people humping trash cans. Many can’t see past the weird and repellent stuff that the filmmaker thrusts at his audience to find the often fascinating ideas within. Can you blame them?