Eric Vandenbroeck 27 January 2019

Cold Case Hammarskjöld redux

In an earlier article I investigated the overblown claims in an upcoming documentary titled Cold Case Hammarskjöld when in reference to an at the time just-published Foreign Policy Magazine article a person familiar with the ongoing investigations in regards to the death of Hammarskjöld wrote to me that "the two Swedish researchers mentioned in the June 2016 article are key persons for a documentary film currently finalized, which even refers to Operation Celeste in its (working) title. This nourishes some thoughts that the new prominence is given to what seems basically old (and dubious) information based on a document with little credibility might come opportune as a kind of promotional news for the film to be soon released."

Above Brügger during the 'Cold Case Hammarskjold' premiere

Currently at the Sundance Festival, yesterday I was able to see the full version of ‘Cold Case Hammarskjold’, whereby it is remarkable (tipped off at the time) how much the  basic scenario still is like the one I commented on in August 2016 and as it appears to me only the filming of certain scenes were not done yet at the time.

Initially Mads Brügger made a name for himself with The Red Chapel, in which he posed as an experimental theater director to gain access to North Korea. This was followed by The Ambassador, which provoked some controversial debates over what now became seen as dubious investigative methods. The film critic A.O. Scott, writing in New York Times wrote that Brüggers documentary might in fact be a hoax by someone who is not be completely trustworthy.

Now Danish provocateur Brügger returns with what sounds like a much more conventionally structured doc but one which could be no less shocking.

What if, Brügger asks, the 1961 death of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld was not the accident it has long been ruled to be but was, in fact, an assassination? And so begins Cold Case Hammarskjöld.

Part of the investigation, as portrayed by the documentary, is to look at how a ‘hit squad’ allegedly bombed Hammarskjöld’s plane. Whereby the investigators who are portrayed in the film ask questions about a possible recruiting office, apparently set up by Moise Tshombe, president of the breakaway Katanga province of the Congo, in the Empire Building in downtown Johannesburg in 1961. According to the Cold Case Hammarskjöld documentary, 61 mercenaries were recruited and sent to Katanga in the spring of 1961.

Ein Bild, das draußen, Boden, LKW, Militärfahrzeug enthält.

Automatisch generierte Beschreibung

Like myself, Canadian-born author Dov Ivry doubts the claims made by Mads Brügger. In his blog Hammarskjöld - Whodunit? Not the Guy In the Movie (Times of Israel, 14 January), charges Brügger’s film to be "passing fiction off as fact." He also mentions that an official report of the Belgian government which places Van Risseghem en route from Paris to Katanga on the night of the crash, which validates the flight logs as written.

At a certain point, as the clues accumulate, cancel each other out, and basically make it impossible to follow the thread of this globetrotting whodunnit, Brügger cops to his own foibles as an investigative journalist. Whether somewhat genuine or purely performative, his self-doubt becomes its own kind of spectacle, as the filmmaker starts to reckon with the idea that this may have been an enormous waste of time; it’s rare to see a documentarian grapple with the feeling that they won’t be able to salvage a worthwhile film from the years of footage they’ve shot along the way.

For Brügger, that crisis is further complicated by the sense that it’s largely of his own making, that his funny, persona-driven approach may have been too glib for a story that touches on grave and ghoulish matters like genocide, institutionalized white supremacy, and a “doctor” who deliberately infected black South Africans with AIDS under the guise of offering them cheap vaccines. At the start of the film, Brügger says that this will either be “the world’s biggest murder-mystery, or the world’s most idiotic murder-mystery,” and there’s a moment some 90 minutes later where it seems that he’s settled on the latter.

Not unlike before, today the makers of the documentary have once again promoted their creation by referring to the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR), whose self-declared “commodore” liked to dress up on special occasions in the garish costume of a 18th-century admiral, with a three-cornered hat, brass buttons and a cutlass. As is typical for similar outfits (in this case basically a small treasure hunting club) a retrospective history is concocted in the hope to lift it out of mediocrity so that it will attract members.

The documentary then includes two dubious interviews, one with a certain Alexander Jones and the latter a hair say claim that Van Risseghem would have downed the plane. Here Dov Ivry added: He did not specify how much either of them had been drinking at the times. Not to mention that obviously faced with a dilemma by presenting two entirely different scenario's without providing even a shred of evidence in a desperate attempt to somehow tie Van Risseghem to SAIMR in a clumsy fashion suggest that 'command could have come through an intermediary'.

The independent Hammarskjöld Commission (para 13.42) mentions a Beukels as the pilot. Others who have either claimed to have been responsible or who have been accused include Bud Culligan, Colin Cooper and Swanepoel, and André Gilson.

Brügger, in a movy segment labeled “a moment of total honesty,” admits that the Hammarskjöld question wasn’t all that interesting to him per se, really serving a way for Brügger to do the things he already enjoys doing.

Ein Bild, das drinnen, Mann, Fenster enthält.

Automatisch generierte Beschreibung

The investigation wasn’t getting where he wanted, and he was spinning his wheels while interviewing “dozens of elderly white men with liver spots.”  He was groping for inspiration, Brügger admits, before saying that what he found was way worse than what he could have foreseen. The light role-playing (Brügger leaning into the unavoidable net-colonialness of his presence by bringing pith helmets along to a dig of the plane’s wreckage) and distancing devices (animation, self-conscious delay of the big reveal) of the first half end; the game stopped being fun, and for the first time Brügger seems unable to maintain some degree of remove.

Contrary to the articles in The Guardian (UK) and an Observer article that also was written with the assistance of the documentary’s co-producer Andreas Rocksen and its director Mads Brügger the New York Times refused such collaboration indicating that they perceived the claims in Cold Case Hammarskjöld as a suspect. The NYT specifically cites here the claims made by Mr.Jones the alleged former member of SAIMR.

As the interviews progressed so the NYT observed, the filmmakers posed additional questions that introduced details of possible militia activities. Thereby Mr. Jones’s responses evolved and, by the time he sat for the final interview, he professed firsthand knowledge of people and events that he had previously seemed to first learn about from the filmmakers.

The filmmakers provided the materials to the NYT, and offered a reporting collaboration. The Times investigated the claims but did not enter into such a partnership. When asked about the discrepancies in Mr. Jones’s story, the filmmakers acknowledged that they could not corroborate the account and that the plan Mr. Jones had described might not have been medically possible. They encouraged journalists to investigate further; “and to remind readers that, even if proven true, there is no reason to turn away from modern medical clinics, which are regulated in ways which did not exist in the 1980s at the end of the apartheid era.” Such a cautionary note was not included in the version of the film seen so NYT writes.

The Times then proceeds with: An eccentric figure who insisted on the title “commodore,” Mr. Maxwell’s writings were rambling, fantastical affairs. “He was a bit of a clown, but he took himself quite seriously,” said Adrian Hadland, who interviewed Mr. Maxwell in the late 1980s for the satirical magazine The Laughing Stock. Mr. Hadland, now a professor at the University of Stirling in Scotland, cautioned against taking any of Mr. Maxwell’s claims at face value. “I would be very careful about putting things on the line for anything to do with this guy,” he said.

According to the NYT experts fear this latest conspiracy theory will erode an already weakened trust in south African medical professionals, especially with disproportionately high infection rates among black populations in sub-Saharan Africa.

"One dangerous consequence of these allegations is that they have the potential to sow mistrust and suspicion of doctors and the medical establishment, and that they may confuse people about how HIV is transmitted," said Rebecca Hodes, the University of Cape Town's director of AIDS and Society Research, to the Times.

Several other comments to the NYT article where along the lines of;

"The casually disregarded consequence of Brugger's film is to further sow seeds of doubt and wariness about quote-unquote Western medicine in populations at risk. This is just another don't-trust-the-West's-medicine conspiracy. The difference is that in Brugger's film, the conspiracy is ginned up by a Westerner to entertain white, Western audiences with audacious claims in service of a hoax."

And that; "HIV as an agent of biological warfare does not make sense. The time from infection to disease, even in the era before treatment, is too long on average, to suit the needs of the shorter strategic time frame for a biologic agent."

Another reviewer wrote: My initial experience of watching “Cold Case” was of falling into the seductive quicksand that a conspiracy theory can create. When I saw the movie, I bought the claims Brügger was making.

Indeed, a positive side about Brügger's piece of art (for that of course it is) is that it brought what otherwise is a somewhat obscure subject into the public eye where it can be discussed.

Finally a Belgian newspaper today published declassified documents related to Jan Van Risseghem. From the documents, it is not clear however if Van Risseghem was even in Katanga on the date Hammarskjöld's plane was downed.

Unwittingly the article also reveals what strengthens my own impression and that I have serious doubts regarding Jan Van Risseghem’s capabilities as a fighter pilot.

So we have to look elsewhere, whereby the likelihood is that the order to kill Hammarskjöld was given by Katangese hardliners to prevent an agreement with the UN which may have had led to an end of the Katangese secession, possibly without a pardon for the punishable crimes committed by the hardliners during the secession.

It is expected that Mohamed Chande Othman a prominent jurist who in March 2018 was reappointed to continue his work in relation to the investigation into the death of Hammarskjöld by June 2019 is expected to submit what might be a final report. Asking a person who is close to the investigation about the lack of cooperation that was experienced with the British and the South African archives I was told that other archives may hold important information as well so that the problems might still be manageable.

Update 7 Feb. 2019: Today Cold Case Hammarskjöld premiered in Danish cinemas. But reviewers there were less kind than most of the American reviewers before.

Lasse Skou Andersen writes: Mads Brügger's new documentary "Cold Case Hammarskjöld" is irresponsible journalism.

From a journalistic point of view, "Cold Case Hammarskjöld" is, at best, unfinished. At worst, the film is pure conspiracy theory.

"The temptations for, or the pressure to close an eye for, the part of the research that doesn't quite fit the story can be great," as DR's former director-general, Christian S. Nissen, put it.

"Especially if you are faced with a sensation of a solo story giving the fare of a Cavling prize or wanting to clear the newspaper cover pages."


And movie director Christian Monggaard writes: I feel cheated by Mads Brügger and his "Cold Case Hammarskjöld."