The death of United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld has long been the subject of debate. While not nearly as popular as the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. or JFK, the 1961 plane crash which claimed Hammarskjöld’s life has nonetheless spawned numerous conspiracy theories whispering that it was no accident. In the new documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld, Danish director Mads Brügger investigates these theories, and in the process uncovers a very different, larger, more plausible, and much more horrifying conspiracy.
Teaming up with Swedish aid worker turned amateur sleuth Göran Björkdahl, Brügger’s investigation dredges up old theories around the mysterious South African paramilitary organization SAIMR, which some believe was involved in Hammarskjöld’s death. But things take a turn, as they uncover evidence that in the ’80s, the group may have been using health clinics and AIDS research as a cover to spread HIV to Black South Africans. Brügger and other journalists detailed their findings in early 2019, and now the film lays out the bizarre road which took him to these revelations. Ahead of the release, I spoke to Brügger on the phone about making the documentary and how he sorted out the fact from the fiction.
Hyperallergic: You worked on this film for about six years. At what point did the focus shift from the Hammarskjöld case to this new possible conspiracy?
Mads Brügger: After a few years, we learned about this figure, Keith Maxwell, and how he was obsessed with AIDS. Initially I did not think it’d be included in the film, because I thought it was a tangent that would totally hijack the story about Hammarskjöld. But that was because for a long while, I thought Maxwell, although a very interesting villain, was a buffoonish, clownish character who was acting on his own — that SAIMR wasn’t real, that he was sitting by himself producing these weird documents with clip art and stationery.
But then we began meeting actual former SAIMR members. They produced evidence that it was legitimate, and one of them told us he was totally convinced Maxwell was funded by British intelligence. This meant I had to radically rethink my whole understanding of the story, especially SAIMR’s activities — alleged activities, I should say — regarding HIV. Then it was clear it had to be in the film.
More than that, this movie begins with two middle-aged Scandinavian guys setting out to prove that the secretary-general of the United Nations was the victim of assassination. That in itself is a megalomaniacal project which is almost bound to fail. But then, by accident discovering what seems to be an attempted Black holocaust, that is a very interesting narrative.
H: The film is very open about all the dead ends and frustrations the investigation hits. How did you pick and choose which narrative strands to include, how to edit them, and what to leave out?
MB: I think the initial rough cut was approximately five hours long. It could easily have been longer. I had to kill off a lot of darlings, which caused me a lot of almost physical pain and despair. There were leads we worked on which were in essence goose chases, but enormously interesting, and to me personally important. There was a Romanian lead, and a Russian one, for example. But in the end, they had to be taken out of the film, partly because of length, but also for the sake of clarity and structure. Figuring out what worked was a trial-and-error process.
Through my work as a journalist and documentary filmmaker, I have discovered that you have to be honest with the audience about your misbehaving, fallacies, your shortcomings and failures. The general viewer will enjoy seeing this, and it will make them cheer for you. If done correctly, this openness actually strengthens the narrative. Nobody likes a storyteller who is totally sure about himself or herself. It quickly becomes boring. But of course, this film is in many ways also a meditation on conspiracy theories and true crime as a genre. As such, I thought it important to expose the messiness of it all, of trying to find these threads and tie them together.
H: Did you always intend to study conspiracy theories this way, or did that theme emerge as you investigated?
MB: It was always going to be a theme. When I came aboard in 2011 after I met Göran and learned about his work, the very idea that Hammarskjöld was assassinated was considered a conspiracy theory for senior citizens. But as we went along, because of new evidence and new witnesses appearing, the story moved from the realm of conspiracy theory to conspiracy reality, which was totally unexpected. It was always going to be a meditation on conspiracy theories, but it took off in ways I did not foresee at all.
H: Were there any true crime films you specifically looked to as influences?
MB: I’m a big fan of almost everything Errol Morris has ever done, so I’m very contentious about not replicating or in any way reproducing his way of doing true crime. One generic convention is the “crime wall,” with photos and red strings and so on. That is something I really wanted to avoid.
H: You have a certain playful tone in your films, a very unusual sense of humor. Do you find that arises naturally, or do you work hard to create it?
MB: Well, I don’t want to come across as pretentious, but that is something which I have difficulty explaining. I do know there are documentary filmmakers who shy away from comedy in their films. They consider it vulgar. That is not a view I subscribe to, clearly. I think comic relief is important, especially in a film which is approximately two hours long. It drives you forward, and helps you take interest in the characters. Of course, what I enjoy most of all is when the people I meet deliver comedy by themselves. Such as the scene in which I meet a possible former member of this South African underground militia. We have his signature on a document, but he says that while it’s his signature, he did not write that signature himself. It’s a fantastic moment.
H: In your previous films, you’ve put on elaborate deceptions to facilitate your investigations. Did you consider a similar approach here?
MB: No. Right from the beginning, that is something I did not want to have in the film. There was no need for doing caricature, role-playing, going undercover here. Although you could argue that I do perform the villain, Maxwell, by dressing as he did. But apart from that, it would make things much too complicated. That is also why I have self-criticism here, through references to my previous films. I want to fully declare that that is not what this film is about. It’s much more nuts-and-bolts journalism in some ways. But at the same time, it already walks a tightrope between fact and fiction.
Cold Case Hammarskjöld opens in limited release August 16.