By Michael Sandlin.
It’s now been eight years since Scandinavian prankster filmmaker Mads Brugger donned his pith helmet and jodhpurs in Angola to impersonate a blood diamond buyer – recording on film the whole farcical mess that ensues for his 2011 documentary feature The Ambassador. Now mad Mads is back in Africa in his pith helmet and post-ironic colonial-style garb to ostensibly make a serious investigative documentary about former UN bigwig Dag Hammarskjold’s dubious death by “plane crash” in Ngola, Rhodesia in 1961. Although Brugger’s antics in The Ambassador came off as more of an extended Baron-Cohenesque gag than a serious journalistic endeavor, here Brugger here seems more passionate and serious about his investigative ambitions regarding Hammarskjold’s shady demise.
Although an unfairly overlooked historical figure these days, in the early 1960s Hammarskjold, serving as Secretary General of the UN, was an outgoing social justice warrior who had real political power and had well-publicized plans to empower Africa and its economy. His goal was to help transition African countries into economic autonomy and out from under the yoke of international corporate interests who were profiting from Africa’s natural resources (but, naturally, ignoring the needs of the African people). Hammarskjold had made some powerful enemies pretty quickly, especially those whose interests depended on the long-term entrenchment of apartheid politics. And considering all the shady dealings that were happening around the world in the early 1960s regarding international black ops: this was after all, the tumultuous era of the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy assassination, Patrice Lumumba’s murder, etc. – so why wouldn’t Brugger or anyone else with a conscience not be moved to suspect foul play?
Brugger wears his insecurities about the project on his sleeve from the start: he predicts his Hammarskjold investigation will be an all-or-nothing endeavor: he’ll either be seen as a wacko conspiracy theorist and his reputation as a filmmaker will suffer, or this will be the journalistic scoop of a lifetime. Nevertheless, he forges ahead with the investigation with the help of his colleague Göran Björkdahl, who has some interesting ideas of his own about the case. They both indulge in neocolonial cosplay that they figure will at least be an amusing distraction if the whole thing goes bust. The idea at first is simple: to excavate the remains of Hammarskjold’s plane and to have them tested to see if the plane had been shot down (or perhaps a bomb was planted?) rather than downed by mechanical failure, which was the official line.
When the initial results of the test come up negative, the self-conscious Dane director indulges in some obvious showboating – he plays down the whole investigation as a failure and admits he hasn’t done enough to see the process through. Yet, just as the Hammarskjold case seems to be ignominiously closing for Brunner, an even more disturbing and bizarre permutation of the story begins to reveal itself – spoiler alert! – all centered on a frighteningly bizarre pro-apartheid mercenary turned genocidal maniac named Keith Maxwell and his 1980s Nazi-like plot to kill black people by injecting them with the then-uncurable AIDS virus (under the guise of medically sound inoculation). Neo-Victorian throwback Maxwell was head (or “commodore” as he pretentiously called himself) of a shadowy mercenary/paramilitary organization operating under the innocuous-sounding SAIMR (South African Institute for Maritime Research) whose actual mission had been to preserve white supremacy in Africa via any destabilizing means necessary. Yet for much of the film, Brugger finds it difficult to obtain convincing proof that this organization actually existed.
Finally determined to go beyond the practices of gentlemanly journalism, Brugger employs a few underhanded tricks of his trade to get answers. And by the last third of the film we watch incredulously as the Hammarskjold death and the motives of Commodore Maxwell/SAIMR begin to dovetail. Brugger’s relentless pestering of those formerly connected with SAIMR finally pays off with some at least semi-credible confessional dividends about the nature of Maxwell’s group and its connection to Hammarskjold’s alleged assassination. But although Brugger’s ideas about a shady international conspiracy to have Hammarskjold bumped off gain some credibility toward the end of the film – it’s at least rescued from the realm of pure fruitcake fantasy – we’re still left with some problematic holes in the case and no smoking gun. Nevertheless, Brugger has left us with a barnburner of a paranoid 1970s-style conspiracy tale that, if nothing else, would have at least made Alan J. Pakula envious.
Michael Sandlin‘s work has appeared in Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, Film Quarterly, Bookforum, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the cinema trade publication Video Librarian.