A must for true crime junkies, Scandi documentary and Lux Prize finalist Cold Case Hammarskjold is a dizzying, disturbing odyssey. It sees director and onscreen narrator Mads Brugger travel the world investigating the suspicious death of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold in 1961. His plane crashed while en route to cease-fire negotiations during a turbulent time in Congo’s history.
We follow Brugger’s attempts to unravel various shadowy, sinister plots – ones so complex the film requires a framing device in which the filmmaker breaks down the story to two secretaries and thus, us. Eventually, his investigation turns to the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR) – a group founded by the mysterious figure of Keith Maxwell, a person who only wore white and liked to dress up as an 18th century admiral. One of the doc’s talking heads, someone who worked for the paramilitary organisation, claims they had a hand in Hammarskjold death, along with spreading HIV among black people.
HeadStuff had a chance to speak with Brugger in Strasbourg the day before the Lux Prize Award Ceremony. The following is that conversation.
Congratulations on being a finalist for the Lux Prize. One of the questions I was going to ask was: ‘When you were making the movie, was there ever a point where you thought ‘this story isn’t going anywhere?’ Yet, in the panel just now you said there were plenty of moments like that and that you had a lot of despair and depression. Could you talk about them?
Yes, for sure. We were working on leads which turned out to be dead ends. A Romanian lead for example, a story about a Romanian hit squad freelancing for the KGB coming to Léopoldville disguised as a financial economical delegation hiding in a Belgian chocolaterie and then somehow gaining access to the airplane and planting a bomb. So, we hired a Romanian journalist to comb through the archives of the Romanian foreign service looking for documents which would prove that an economical delegation actually went to Léopoldville. In the end, it turned out to be a goose chase. It was costing us a lot of money, time and resources.
We were also filming in Russia regarding a now dead KGB officer who told a Swedish source that according to the KGB the Americans killed off Dag Hammarskjold. There was this mountain of research piling up and you know, a very decisive moment in all of this was actually meeting with General Tienie Groenewald [South Africa’s former head of military intelligence].
Apart from the mere fact that he wanted to meet with us – because guys like that don’t give interviews normally – him telling us that he met with Maxwell, which is sensational I think, and also that he was firmly convinced Maxwell was an asset of British intelligence. Someone who was financed and controlled by the MI6, as he phrased it. That’s highly interesting. But then also he [Groenewald] was very dismissive of SAIMR, saying he had never heard about that organisation and if they did exist, they would not have been of importance.
These two pieces of information are hard to combine. That convinced me there was more to Maxwell than what I initially thought – which was that he was a demonic but yet still buffoonish character – and also that there had to be something more about SAIMR which needed to be scrutinised.
You’ve mentioned this film took 6-7 years to make, you’re traversing around the globe. Unlike making a fictional movie, you don’t have the luxury of knowing ‘this is going to be the final scene, this is going to be what I shoot these days’. Also, you’re making Cold Case Hammarskjold in your spare time [as he made the documentary, Brugger was channel manager at Danish radio station Radio24syv]. How do you find hours in the day to accomplish all that?
Actually, having lengthy pauses from shooting the film gave me ample time for reading, contemplating and planning ahead. Also, suddenly something interesting would happen six months later which made us reconsider what we were doing, how we were shooting it, whom we needed to track down and meet. So, time in some sense worked in our favour. But of course, it was an enormous challenge keeping track of all the information, digesting it, analysing it and then also planning for a way to combine all these informations and making a narrative out of them.
What was post-production like for that reason? How many hours of footage did you have by the end?
Enormous amounts of hours. During the middle of the process, I began developing the idea of having the secretaries in the film which were scenes we shot at the end, our last travels to Congo, Zambia and South Africa. They are highly improvised these scenes. They are not scripted. But I had to be on top of my game regarding how to explain this to two persons who were not in the know about anything relating to Dag Hammarskjold. That was really trial and error.
It’s a striking device – the inclusion of the two black African secretaries and how that links into SAIMR. These could have been people affected if the allegations made against SAIMR in your documentary are true.
Yes. Also, I realised I was working on a film which paradoxically was almost without women and black Africans. That’s another important part of why they are there.
A new UN report into Dag Hammarskjold’s death has been released recently. From reading articles about it, it seems to, if not confirm, then add a lot of credence to what’s in Cold Case Hammarskjold – the idea Dag Hammarskjold was assassinated, the idea of the alleged countries involved like the UK and South Africa not being forthcoming with relevant documents. Is there any information that you thought was particularly new that came out of that report?
For me, first and foremost, the report confirming how South Africa, the UK and the US are reluctant to co-operate with the UN is extraordinary and proves a number of points in my film, or at least points towards the film being in the right. Also, the UN meeting with Alexander Jones [a former SAIMR intelligence officer who appears in Cold Case Hammarskjold] and taking him seriously and recognising the importance of his affidavit is also significant.
There’s another testimony by an American – Paul Abram [a former US air force security officer]. What he tells about how he also overheard that the plane was shot down connects extremely well with what Charles Southall [a former US naval intelligence officer] says in the documentary.
Are there plans to expand on Cold Case Hammarskjold given all the information you gathered making the film?
What we have done is a mini-series – a serial version – of the film. That has some new material in it. For example, there’s stuff about the supposed secret archives of SAIMR, where they were stored. Also, there’s information about a US counter espionage intelligence official who told a journalist that Hammarskjold was assassinated.
If there was going to be anymore projects – spin-offs of Cold Case Hammarskjold or any future research into this subject – would you still be involved?
I believe so, yes. I am contemplating doing a sequel. This is because every time the film is being screened at festivals or on television, people who have information send me e-mails or private messages. Some of that is highly interesting and calls for another film.