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Opening a Pandora's Black Box

Tore Vollan/Magnolia Pictures

Cold Case Hammarskjöld (2019)

What happens when a well-meaning jackass decides to interfere in a complicated situation when his lack of nuanced knowledge is no barrier to him prancing around for the cameras as he pretends to achieve more than he is capable of? He crashes and burns.

Poorly made documentaries are an insult on every level. They insult the subject, whose story is reduced to someone else's narcissistic publicity stunt. It insults the participants, who are usually well-meaning and/or knowledgeable people whose willingness to share what they know on camera deserves to be treated with professional care, if not respect. And it is an insult to the audience, who thought they would be watching an expose of a 60-year-old murder mystery but who, with “Cold Case Hammarskjöld,” are served a laughable journalistic failure instead.

The only positive thing that can be said about director Mads Brügger is that he is self-aware. Unfortunately, we have to get more than halfway through the film before he shares his self-awareness with us. He's made a movie without evident journalistic rigor, based on no verified documents, doorstepping little old ladies and chancers with their own agendas and asking nothing but leading questions. He has framed this as an exposé of even more complicated and nefarious crimes, involving clandestine governmental agencies, white supremacists, murdered women and crimes against humanity which were all, allegedly, done by the same organization which blew former United Nations’s president Dag Hammarskjöld’s plane out of the sky in 1961.

Now, the trouble with these kind of allegations is that they are, patently, very difficult to prove. But after an hour of watching a costumed Mr. Brügger as he mansplains the history of Africa to two local women he has hired to portray typists, it’s impossible to trust the veracity of what he is putting on screen. He is, by his own admission, so desperate to maintain his own journalist reputation that he will willingly play the fool if it enables his film to be taken seriously. He actually goes so far as to say he does not care about Hammarskjöld.

Are we then to believe the man who falls into their laps and spends the final half-hour of the film casually dropping bombshell after bombshell about a secret South African mercenary organisation? Especially since all his allegations relate to crimes which took place in the early ’80s and ’90s and have very little to do with the life and death of Hammarskjöld himself? When the director himself has worked so hard to blur the line between journalistic integrity and sensationalistic pandering, how is the remotely possible to think the film has anything true to share?

It’s incredibly depressing to watch someone who should know better grasp at such self-aggrandizing straws. It’s worse when this is done on the backs of the evident kindness and support of so many black people in the Congo, Zambia and South Africa. The main mystery of “Cold Case Hammarskjöld” is how anyone believed that this man was the right one to handle such incendiary material with the care and attention it deserves.


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