Danish journalist and filmmaker Mads Brügger is known for the unique provocative style he uses in his journalistic/documentary works. He explores locations with social and political tensions and his method is not just to observe the surroundings, but to actively participate in the action and to test the situation to its limits. Using absurdist strategies and personal charisma, he has developed several notable projects about US, North Korea, China and Central Africa. His new project COLD CASE HAMMARSKJÖLD is focused on several African countries and sets off at the point of a plane crash back in 1961, in the night between 17 and 18 September, near Ndola, in Northern Rhodesia, now known as Zambia.
The accident took lives of the UN secretary Dag Hammarskjöld and some of his colleagues.
Hammarskjöld was to meet the Katangese separatist leader, Moïse Tshombe, to negotiate a ceasefire for the mineral rich and breakaway Katanga with the Republic of the Congo, which had proclaimed independence from Belgium in 1960. The secession of the Katanga province was bolstered by Western major powers (UK, France, Belgium, USA), which had geostrategic and mining interests in the rebellious region. Hammarskjöld who US President John F. Kennedy described as the “greatest statesman of our century”, and who was the only person to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize after his death, was firmly convinced that Congo and all of Africa should become truly independent from former colonial powers and that United Nations should protect newly independent countries against their political meddling.
The case of Hammarskjöld’s mysterious death has never been fully investigated, whereas since then conflicting theories have proliferated.
The official inquiries that immediately followed suggested that pilot error was the cause of the crash. But suspicions that the plane was shot down have never disappeared, fed by one report of the United Nations Commission of Investigation in 1962 suggesting that the UN charter was sabotaged. Most convincingly a 2013 report of an independent international commission concluded that the UN charter had been fired on by a Katangan plane piloted by a Belgian or South African mercenaries fighting with the separatists.
Filmmaker Mads Brügger came up with his first project about Africa in 2011 with THE AMBASSADOR, premiered in Sundance competition. The director went undercover as a diplomat after learning that it is possible to buy this status and created a film aiming to bring out the issues of corruption and power distribution in former colonial states (Liberia and Central African Republic). Brügger was able to pull everything off, despite risky approach and controversial methods – some of which (e.g. using a hidden camera) resulted in legal issues and attempts to prohibit the screenings of the film. However, in several years he went back to Africa (this time, Zambia) together with a private investigator Göran Björkdahl.
COLD CASE HAMMARSKJÖLD started from a piece of metal Björkdahl’s father, who worked for the UN, once brought home from the plane crash site. This ended up as almost six years of investigation and turned into COLD CASE HAMMARSKJÖLD, Brügger’s fourth feature project. The film premiered in Sundance and got the Directing Award.
Taking up an old dusty case, Brügger is fully aware of the difficulties that come into the way: lack of evidence, lack of support from authorities and lack of public interest. He turns the story into an entertaining show right from the beginning, choosing to start the film in ironic suspense. Fully dressed in white, he sits in a hotel room with curtains down, dictates the story to two female African secretaries, who take turns to type it down using an old typewriter, and immediately claims to follow the case that might open up the weirdest conspiracy. The tone seems to distract and slightly delude the audience, that is about to dive into a very detailed investigative journalism story with a lot of attention to details. But the revelations and the issues involved exceed the intended, and COLD CASE HAMMARSKJÖLD ends up as a political thriller that doesn’t really drive direct exact conclusions, but eventually expands beyond its cinematic form followed up by arguments and paranoid impressions.
Brügger presents the figure of Hammarskjöld as a progressive Swedish diplomat working in Africa just becoming independent, and looks for the evidence that the plane crash has not been an accident as the official version states.
In the Katanga issue Mr Hammarskjold took position in favor of Congo’s central authorities and of prime minister Patrice Lumumba backed by the Soviets. The crash happened at the moment when Hammarskjöld was on his way to initiate a negotiation between UN forces and troops of Katanga, a new state proclaiming independence, being supported by a local mining company, that was against nationalization that Hammarskjold was backing instead.
With business interest involved, it became obvious that the diplomat could be an unwanted figure. Brügger ties up the multiple threads leading to this conclusion: while Göran Björkdahl’s physical evidence (a metal plate with holes) proves to be non-authentic, everything else seems to support the theory of his assassination. The important pieces of evidence come as testimonies of local people that the film carefully collects. These people were never seen as witnesses by the authorities. Björkdahl comes to the theory that the plane was shot down, and Brügger arrives to his favourite point of applied power distribution that will be developed further as the story goes deeper.
Digging the archives and interviewing more and more people involved, Björkdahl and Brügger proceed with the investigation and find more characters and institutions involved into the case. One of them is SAIMR, the South African Institute for Marine Research, that appears to be a mercenary organization with connections to many secret activities, some of which can’t be proved or researched. As the leader of the organization Keith Maxwell appears in the film, described by witnesses as both very powerful and manipulative and at the same time out of his mind, a weirdo, the ambiguity takes over the film. Brügger intensifies the feeling of confusion using goofy colonial parody role plays, but along with these jokes he poses serious questions about something governments and secret intelligence services (precisely, CIA and MI-6) are hiding from the public. At some moment Brügger ironically points out that he finds himself interviewing “elderly white man with liver spots”, all of whom are apparently lying, and the investigation finds itself at the dead end, however, going from the initial direction of the assassination to apartheid, white supremacy and HIV spread. Brügger suggests that a South African group of white mercenaries had not only played a role in the crash, but had also later plotted to wipe out South Africa’s black majority with AIDS through a fake vaccination campaign.
The AIDS Conspiracy remains unproven even though the oppression from the white supremacist government, which did have a biological weapons program, made the AIDS legend believable to many blacks. Like the mystery of Mr. Hammarskjold’s death, the story of AIDS conspiracy theories is rooted in Cold War intrigue.
COLD CASE HAMMARSKJÖLD combines traditional interviewing, archive research and scrupulous paper studies together with persona-driven approach and hilarious performances that Brügger shoots at the spot. Such combination may leave controversial feeling towards the collected material and give the sense of manipulation, taking into account the incredible geography and huge amount of characters and facts in the story itself, but as well leaves the audience no chance to stay uninvolved. Brügger uses the exploitative filmmaking style to address the issues beyond the topics of his immediate research as well, and by putting himself and his screen partners into awkward situations when attempts to question official versions of events that are happening in Africa up until today. The film results with a promise of further investigation and this must bring some relief to the viewers, whose first (and appropriate) reaction will definitely be a web-research of everything they had seen on screen.