Mads Brügger • Director of Cold Case Hammarskjöld
“I love mysteries which refuse to be demystified”
- We spoke with the Danish journalist and filmmaker Mads Brügger about his Sundance-award-winning documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld, now in competition at Bologna’s Biografilm Festival
In his latest work, Cold Case Hammarskjöld [+see also:
interview: Mads Brügger
interview: Mads Brügger
film profile], an investigative film which earned the Danish journalist and filmmaker the best directing award at Sundance, Mads Brügger looks into the mysterious aeroplane crash of 1961 in which UN Secretary General Dag Hammerskjöld lost his life. The title is currently competing in Bologna’s Biografilm Festival (7-17 June), where we sat down to chat with the director.
Cineuropa: How did you become interested in Hammarskjöld’s story and how did the private investigator Göran Björkdahl come onto the scene?
Mads Brügger: It all started by accident in 2011 when I read an article on Göran who was trying to track down the last remaining local witnesses of the incident. I invited him to meet with us in Denmark, also to make sure that he wasn’t just some mythomaniac who buys into the wildest kind of conspiracy theories. But what I actually found was a very logical and rational person who looks at things with a healthy dose of scepticism, the most Swedish Swede there is. There was this mysterious sheet of metal found by his father, as well as the testimonies given by the local population, so I thought there must be a story behind it all. When I went to the Swedish Film Institute to outline the project, the person I spoke to was quite touched, because he/she found it remarkable that a Danish man could want to make a film about Hammarskjöld, who in Sweden is known as “the lord of peace”. So, they gave me the money to make the film. To begin with, I thought it would be a simple project that wouldn’t take too long to complete, but it became a project of titanic proportions, full of doubts, questions and moments of desperation.
Essentially, there is no real ending to the story. When and why did you decide to wrap the film-shoot and end the film?
After seven years of investigations, we had to draw a line under it - we were running out of funding. It took so many years to demonstrate that an organisation like SAIMR (the South African Institute for Maritime Research) had genuinely existed in the form shown in the film, and this revelation was the real turning point. If we’d wanted to take the next step, it would have required more funding and access to government entities, particularly to check out the supposed mass vaccination programme which the key witness Alexander Jones talks about. I love mysteries which refuse to be demystified; a part of me would love to carry on investigating. In fact, I’m still acquiring data even now: I recently learned that Keith Maxwell (self-styled commodore of SAIMR, ndr) had a daughter who graduated in journalism in Cape Town and who was convinced her father was a doctor.
As a director-journalist-investigator, you enter fully into the story you’re telling. Why is it important to physically participate in a film of this type?
At the beginning, I didn’t intend to take part in the film, Göran was supposed to be the only protagonist. But he’s extremely introverted, so I realised that I had to be in the film to serve as his counterpoint. Then I realised that if there wasn’t a guide, then a film of this type - where you’re working on mountains of data in all directions - would become too full of voices and narratives. So, I had the idea of using my two secretaries, who acted as audience avatars: when I explained the scenes to them, I told them to ask me questions, if they had any. Their role was important. They helped me to find the right language to explain the incident to those who knew nothing about it. Their questions were absolutely brilliant, and pertinent. They were a great help and a real source of direction in the editing phase.
What have been the consequences of the film’s release to date? In terms of Hammarskjöld’s death, have there been any further developments?
We’ve since facilitated a meeting between UN representatives who’d been following the case and Alexander Jones, who has now left South Africa. The meeting took place in Stockholm a few weeks ago. Jones told them what he knew about SAIMR and Hammarskjöld. This will lead to a new report which will probably be published this summer, and it would seem that the UN are likely to back the theory that Hammarskjöld was killed as part of a conspiracy. The problem is that the main actors in the affair - Great Britain and South Africa - are reluctant to disclose the documents in their possession relating to Hammarskjöld’s death. It still hasn’t been explained how these documents disappeared from the South African archives where they were originally deposited. Before we begin to ask ourselves who it was, those papers need to come out. I worry that a definitive conclusion may never be reached.
What about the disturbing story about the vaccination programme which emerged during the enquiries?
In the film, we have objective documentation proving that SAIMR had plans to carry out a possible holocaust amongst the various black populations - we have two testimonies on this. But we don’t know why or who would finance a project of this type. To find out, investigations would need to be carried out at a higher, governmental level. In the meantime, just talking about this crime prevents it from being kept hidden.
(Translated from Italian)
Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.