By Liam Lacey
The documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld tells an amazing story worthy of a half-shelf of John LeCarre novels. It involves the murder of United Nations General Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld, a mercenary fighter pilot called “Lone Ranger,” a conspiracy of American and British intelligence agencies, a cult-like group of South African white supremacists and a conspiracy theory about the eighties’ HIV crisis.
Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger tends to spoils things by trying to make them too entertaining. Brügger (Red Chapel) operates in the first-person mode (see also Nick Broomfield, Agnes Varda, Werner Herzog, Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock) but he takes it to another level, where he’s essentially playing a character, the socially clueless but pale Scandinavian on a quest in Africa. He dresses in white because, he says at the beginning, the villain of this story — a man named Keith Maxwell, who started his own militia — only wore white.
On his long, meandering journey (the film took six years!) Brügger is accompanied by Swedish private investigator Goran Bjorkdahl, who first got the director’s attention in 2011 when he interviewed several previously ignored eyewitnesses to the crash. Both men don goofy looking pith helmets to use a metal detector in a half-serious effort to uncover pieces of Hammarskjöld’s jet.
In between their encounters with an assortment of witnesses, informants, and officials, he dictates notes to two secretaries (Saphir and Kerryn, working in hotel rooms), who for some reason use manual typewriters and occasionally pose bemused questions. One asks when the story became fiction. “This is not fiction. This is a documentary,” the director insists.
Their eyewitnesses’ testimony, about seeing a second plane following Hammarskjöld’s downed DC-6 plane, jibes with a 2015 UN report which concluded there was “persuasive evidence” the plane was attacked. The assassination theory is also supported by documents unearthed by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee, which suggest British and American international intelligence agencies conspired to have Hammarskjöld killed.
While Brügger turns over some promising rocks, conclusive proof is hard to find. The director confesses to his disappointment on his wild goose chase and expresses self-flagellating exasperation with his project and silly stratagems. Again, he feels like he’s trying too hard: When he describes Hammarskjöld — a legitimately revered figure who won a posthumous Nobel Peace Prize — as “a goofy character from a screwball comedy,” he’s talking nonsense.
In the film’s last third, he finds the trail again, and the plot twists more profoundly ugly than the assassination of one political figure. Brügger and Bjorkdahl begin looking into a shadowy South African white supremacist paramilitary organization called SAIMR (The South African Institute for Maritime Research) which reportedly worked with South African government and international intelligence agencies. The chief whistleblower here is a man called Alexander Jones, who claims that SAIMR used fake health clinics to infect South African’s black population with the HIV virus.
Here we find echoes of the “AIDS was a CIA plot” conspiracy theory. According to a The New York Times investigation in January, which interviewed South African AIDS experts, such a scheme, if it existed, would be extremely expensive and have no chance of working. But the article also points out that Jones changed his story several times before arriving at the version we see on camera.
Cold Case Hammarskjöld is likely to be divisive; I’m divided myself. Brügger’s awkward juxtaposition of clowning with real-life horrors is off-putting. In a time plagued by conspiracy theories, the film is an example of an acutely timely uneasiness, reminding us how conspiracies can be simultaneously toxic and compelling.
Cold Case Hammarskjöld. Directed by Mads Brügger. With Mads Brügger, Goran Bjorkdahl and Alexander Jones. Opens August 16 at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox, Vancouver’s Vancity and in Montreal and throughout the summer/fall in other cities.