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In partnership with the Cork Film Festival, the European Parliament is providing free screenings of three movies competing for the Lux Prize. This is an award given out by the latter body to help significant European films find an audience beyond their national market. Each week, in the run-up to the festival, Stephen Porzio will spotlight one of the competing titles. The first entry is Scandi documentary Cold Case Hammarskjold.
Early into Cold Case Hammarskjold, Danish director and on-screen narrator Mads Brugger warns viewers: “This could either be the world’s biggest murder mystery or the world’s most idiotic conspiracy theory. If the latter is the case, I am sorry.” Thankfully, for audiences it seems like the former is more the truth, with Brugger and co shedding light on a dark sinister plot as labyrinthine and far reaching as anything Thomas Pynchon ever cooked up. What’s crazy here though is this is real life.
The documentary begins as a look with fresh eyes into the death of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold in 1961. Devoted to protecting recently independent African countries from older colonial European powers, his plane went down while en route to cease-fire negotiations during a turbulent time in Congo’s history. While originally the crash was attributed to a pilot error, a later UN investigation was undecided as to whether the former is true or if there had been an attempt to sabotage the aircraft.
This is where Swedish aid worker Goran Bjorkdahl enters the fray. He was passed on by his father a metal plate believed to have been part of Hammarskjold’s plane the Albertina. The object is riddled with tiny holes, as if it had been shot at. Travelling to the site of the wreckage, Bjorkdahl questions the black locals whose statements were not taken seriously by investigators at the time of Hammarskjold’s death. They believe he was assassinated, with their witness accounts clashing with prior official documents on the accident.
From here Bjorkdahl teams up with gonzo journalist and Danish TV host Brugger to investigate further. A file released by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1998 provides an outline for the assassination of Hammarskjold. The body behind the document is the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR), a secretive paramilitary organization that is believed to have performed clandestine operations to support white supremacy across Africa.
From here, Cold Case just grows more fascinating if disturbing, making links between SAIMR and the CIA and MI6 and recounting stories of mysterious operatives with nicknames like ‘Congo Red’ and ‘The Lone Ranger’ and others who only wore white or liked to dress up as 18th century admirals. Those obsessed with conspiracy theories and shadowy plots will no doubt get a kick out of the yarn Brugger spins. But that’s not to say less imaginative, more fact based viewers won’t believe the stories at its heart too.
Despite Brugger and Bjorkdahl’s six years of investigating – over which certain lines of inquiry are deemed dead ends, while others which seemed less important at first excitingly become vital – some facts are more verified then others. This is mostly down to the passage of time between Hammarskjold’s death, as well as SAIMR’s time in operation, and the present.
However, even when the two can’t prove something definitively, the film goes as far as it can in convincing viewers that it is quite likely true – gathering seemingly very credible witnesses, alongside a hefty heap of circumstantial evidence. The film ends with an extended interview with Alexander Jones, an ex-military member who worked for SAIMR. If even a quarter of what he tells Brugger and Bjorkdahl is true, the two have uncovered some jaw-dropping information.
On top of all this, Brugger is a welcome presence to guide us through what could in lesser hands be an example of information overload. Professional yet disarmingly zany, when he reaches a brick wall in his investigation, he hilariously and frankly tells the audience: “I was never really interested in the legacy of Dag Hammarskjold … For me, Dag Hammarskjold was most of all a ticket to all the things I really enjoy – tracking down Belgian mercenaries, telling tales of evil men who dress in white, the ace of spades found at crime scenes, rumours about secret African societies.”
Meanwhile, the film is structured around Brugger explaining and dictating the plot and his narration to two African secretaries, a device which at first appears to be for comedic effect. Yet, given the topics the documentary eventually covers in its final act, this method of storytelling may hold richer symbolic meaning.
Like the other finalists for the Lux Prize, Cold Case deserves its place. Not only is it one of the most entertainingly told documentaries in recent years, it’s also saying something important about today. Hammarskjold was most certainly murdered by people who wanted to keep Africa a third world continent for their own interests, leading to more misery for its inhabitants. Cold Case is a plea against that colonialist exploitation mode of thinking, and a call for humanity.
Cold Case Hammarskjold will be shown on Friday, November 8 in the Triskel Arts Centre as part of a simultaneous screening across Europe. It will be followed by a Q&A with director Mads Brugger connecting all EU audiences in one conversation. For more information, see here.