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Cold Case Hammarskjold
by Jay Seaver

"That it's not the movie it looks like is perhaps the point."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2019: In "Cold Case Hammarskjöld", satirical documentarian Mads Brügger does a convincing imitation of a dog who has finally caught the tail he's been chasing and realizes he's got no idea of what comes next. It doesn't quite become a repudiation of Brügger's life's work, and that of the thriving industry that uses comedy to help people process what is often an insane world, but it runs hard into the limits of that approach. I half-suspect that the film still has the form it does both because reshaping it would have felt less honest and because hitting those limits wound up fascinating him.

The film offers a refresher on Dag Hammarskjöld - or primer, if your education was like mine and gave him just a cursory mention - that he was elected Secretary General of the United Nations in 1953, and more activist in the role than many anticipated, until he did in a plane crash on the way to attempt mediation in the Congo in 1961. Many suspected foul play than and for decades later, but nothing was proven. Swedish private detective and aid worker Göran Björkdahl has what he believes is new evidence, and teams with Brügger to document the investigation. They are particularly focused on Jan Van Risseghem, a Belgian pilot and alleged soldier of fortune who cuts the figure of a James Bond villain in the one photograph they have, and may have been the one to shoot the plane down.

That image is so striking that Brügger appropriates the trademark white suit and the like to narrate the film, renting hotel rooms and having a pair of African women serve as secretaries transcribing it. Why two? As he himself mentions, it's an idea he had early on, maybe something that could be worked into the film as a commentary about details not lining up, or him disposing of lackeys as he grows more drawn into the character and obsessed. After all, as he admits, this investigation isn't going to go anywhere, but it may serve as a good jumping-off point for a movie about seeing conspiracies in every corner or how our knowledge of even recent history is incomplete or white dilettantes in Africa. And there is still a lot of that plan visible: Those interstitials in the hotel rooms are still in the movie and as off-kilter as one would hope, and there's a sort of archness to the scenes of Brügger and Björkdahl conducting their initial investigation. The earnest Björkdahl recedes a bit in order to play up Brügger not treating it as a joke but knowing that he's making something of a meta-movie.

The thing is, though, that as they keep following their trails, they don't find dead ends. They may not find out whether or not Dag Hammarskjöld was assassinated, but all of this leads somewhere, and what they eventually track down is even worse. Brügger lets the audience see him throwing it for a loop even as the film becomes a bit more of a conventional documentary along the way, following a trail, filling in information, and hitting dead ends without that particular sort of self-examination. It's a sobering switch-up, and the shedding of the veneer of irony that initially coated the film makes the horrors they've found hit even harder.

At a certain point, one wonders if maybe Brügger should have changed the film's name and re-edited it into something more focused on what he has learned about along the way; Cold Case Hammarskjöld will seem like an unlikely place to look for that story in the future. On the other hand, not doing so allows him to quietly interrogate the whole process as he tells both of those stories, and that turns out to be a fascinating thing to watch and turn over later. Even before considering how he started this project to research the death of a famous white person in Africa only to discover a much greater crime against Africans, it's worth noting that he came in ready to be flexible, but still planning to tell a predetermined story in a certain way. That's fine - non-fiction writing is important in any medium! - but there are some things this increasingly popular approach is ill-suited for.

Is Brügger likely to refocus and commit himself to straight journalism as a result of this experience and the signs of self-appraisal visible throughout? Probably not, and he likely shouldn't - even in the midst of this film, he's still good at his satirical approach. It's nevertheless an intriguing reminder that, even if a bit of comedy or a jaded approach can help current and historical events go down easier, sometimes they need to be seen for what they are.

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originally posted: 08/23/19 12:32:49
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2019 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Mads Br�gger

Written by
  Mads Br�gger


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