Cold Case Hammarskjöld (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): A compelling conspiracy investigation

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Danish documentary film “Cold Case Hammarskjöld”, which received the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award when it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival early in this year, is about a potentially dubious but undeniably compelling conspiracy investigation. While I still have some skepticism on what is presented in the documentary, I observe its investigation process with curiosity and fascination nonetheless, and, though nothing is clear even at the end of the documentary, I think it ultimately makes some sharp points on the long shadows of European colonialism in the modern African history.

At first, director Mads Brügger, who previously made “The Red Chapel” (2009) and “The Ambassador” (2011), was curious about the rather suspicious circumstance surrounding the death of Dag Hammarskjöld, a Swedish diplomat who was the UN General Secretary during 1953-1961. On September 18th, 1961, Hammarskjöld was going to Ndola, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) by plane for handling diplomatic matters involved with the ongoing Congo Crisis, but his plane crashed down to the ground right before arriving in Ndola, and everyone on the plane including him died as a consequence.

While it was concluded in the following investigation that this unfortunate incident was caused by a simple mistake of the pilot, there were some questionable aspects, and it was also rumored that the incident was not accidental at all. After all, as openly advocating many newly independent countries in Africa during his term of office in UN, Hammarskjöld came to have lots of political enemies, and it seemed possible that he was actually assassinated by one of them, though there was no definite evidence to incriminate any of them.

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The starting point of Brügger’s private investigation on Hammarskjöld’s death began with a certain object acquired by the father of his fellow investigator Göran Björkdahl. It is just a small old metal plate, but, according to Björkdahl’s father, it was from Hammarskjöld’s plane, and it has some traces on the surface which suggest that the plane was shot by a smaller jet plane before the crash.

For confirming that possibility, Brügger and Björkdahl went to Ndola, and the documentary shows us their search for a site where Hammarskjöld’s plane was buried not long after the incident. Although their attempt was eventually blocked by local authorities, there were a number of people willing to talk about the incident, and one of them, who was a local photographer at that time, tells us that a certain object which happened to be on Hammarskjöld’s body as shown from one photograph indicates that the CIA was involved in the incident. In addition, there is a former National Security Agency (NSA) guy recounting to us what he heard around the time when the incident happened, and then there is also a former mercenary telling us about a certain colleague of his who allegedly shot down Hammarskjöld’s plane.

In the meantime, the investigation led Brügger and Björkdahl to something else. In 1998, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa unearthed a document containing an outline for the assassination of Hammarskjöld, and this document supposedly came from the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR), a shadowy paramilitary organization which might be associated with MI-6 and the CIA. It could have drawn lots of attentions at that time, but, due to the questionable aspects of the document, it was quickly put aside and then forgotten while both the British government and the US government denied any involvement with SAIMR.

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Through a local journalist, Brügger and Björkdahl came to learn more about Keith Maxwell, who was allegedly one of the leading figures in SAIMR. According to his heavily fictionalized autobiography remaining to be incomplete, Maxwell was involved in numerous shady operations inside and outside South Africa, and it is later revealed that he also ran a number of medical clinics in several townships of South Africa although he was not a doctor.

As Brügger and Björkdahl delved more into Maxwell and SAIMR, there came more puzzles and questions, and their investigation seemed to be reaching to the dead end, but then they encountered two people who confided to them what Maxwell and his organization attempted to do via those clinic of his. According to these two people, SAIMR mainly served the interests of white supremacy in Africa, and the real purpose of Maxwell’s clinics was spreading AIDS in Africa for eradicating the black population of not only South Africa but also several other countries around it.

Now some of you will probably question the credibility of these and other testimonies in the documentary, but the documentary keeps holding our attention thanks to Brügger’s skillful direction coupled with some playful sense of deadpan humor. Brügger and Björkdahl are an engaging duo to watch, and I also enjoyed the occasionally humorous interactions between Brügger and his two African female secretaries, though I often wondered whether these two secretaries are actually hired actresses.

To be frank with you, I usually stay away from conspiracy theories for good reasons, but “Cold Case Hammarskjöld” did a pretty good job of presenting its conspiracy theory with reasonable doubts and questions. I do not believe all of it, but I will not deny that I was constantly entertained during my viewing, so I recommend you to watch it – with some caution, of course.

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