Genre: Crime Documentary/Docudrama/Meta-cinema
Year Released: 2019
Running Time: 124 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: R
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Preying Missionaries, The Maltese Double Cross, Why Planes Crash, Hate Crimes in the Heartland, Namibian Genocide & The 2nd Reich, The Ambassador
-There is a major spoiler in this documentary that will be mentioned that involves a huge “plot twist”. However, that scene in particular has received news coverage in various news sources after its Sundance premiere. This segment that has been talked about all the time involves something very disturbing and shows a sadistic form of racism that was done. Reader discretion is advised.
-This review was written during the Coronavirus Panic. I knew about parts of this documentary since 2019, but the concept of viruses will be discussed here which makes multiple parts harsher in hindsight.
-The director is Danish reporter/filmmaker/TV host Mads Brügger. He has worked on the films Danes for Bush and The Red Chapel. His debut documentary was The Ambassador which also involves Africa (Liberia to be exact) and he was a talk show host for the Danish TV show Den 11. Time.
-Ndola is actually the third most populated city in Zambia after Lusaka (also the capital) and Kitwe. The Dag Hammarskjöld memorial is in that city. Ndola is a Sister city to Regina, SK, Canada, and Lubumbashi, DRC.
-Cold Case Hammarskjöld won the 2019 Sundance World Cinema: Documentary Award.
-Despite most of the dialogue being in English, there are also examples of Chewa, French, Afrikaans, and Swedish spoken in the documentary.
-Dag Hammarskjöld was from Jönköping, Sweden. He is actually a descendant of a Swedish noble family and even lived in Uppsala Castle. This diplomat was considered to be one of the best UN Secretary Generals since the organization’s inception and has multiple streets, businesses, and buildings named after him in and outside of the Scandinavian region.
-This was scored by avant-garde musician Kaada. He owns his own record label of the same name and has scored films such as Sunshine Superman, The Lost, and Hawaii, Oslo (I’ve seen that last movie!). He’s also collaborated with Faith No More singer Mike Patton and has a duo called Kaada/Patton.
I have been waiting a long time to see an expose such as this one. Watching documentaries that expose certain things in this world is something I’m enthralled by even if the truth gets very sobering. I’m certainly no stranger to reviewing works such as things. Reviewing both of the Bananas!* movies were eye-opening as it showed the ills of corporate agriculture and how the sequel Big Boys Gone Bananas!* shows how far said companies go to censor filmmakers. There was Preying Missionaries which was an extremely tragic case of mass child abuse in a Kenyan orphanage done by some wicked people in America who had no business to begin with. Even The Lion’s Share was jaw-dropping to me as it showed how certain famous songs are works of blatant plagiarism and cultural appropriation (saying nothing about how that documentary proved me right even more about a certain 90s animated film franchise that is BUILT on stealing from other countries). Then I heard a news story last year about a shocking confession made and how it was caught on camera that filled me with so much rage that I just had to know more about that case.
This is that documentary.
Cold Case Hammarskjöld deals with an eerie case involving the death of former United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarsköld. He was a Swedish man who was often mild-mannered and known for his diplomacy mysteriously died in a plane crash in Ndola, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Mads Brügger doesn’t believe that his death was due to pilot failure and believes that this was an organized hit. He brings along Swedish journalist Göran Björkdahl and hires two African secretaries (the South African Clarinah Mfengu and the Congolese Saphir Wenzi Mabanza) to record this chaotic mystery. They do all to multiple European and African nations to find clues about the death of the former UN Secretary General. Their research leads to some terrifying facts tied to mercenaries, intelligence organizations, and even a clandestine operation known as SAIMR (South African Institute for Maritime Research) who are a white supremacist pro-apartheid group with government connections. Word gets out that Hammarskjöld wanted the African countries to be more economically autonomous without relying too much on their former European colonizers (context: he was in power during the 60s when several African countries got independence that decade) which made him a threat, so there this could’ve been a murder mystery. What kind of sick and unsettling things will be revealed?
There was so much harrowing truth on display and this documentary had amazing direction going for it. The camera work and cinematography were on point. Not only was the camera work impeccable, but there was actually creativity to enhance the story without exaggerating things. They use animation, role play, archived footage, and raw video all combining to make something amazing. There’s a meta-cinema element like how Brügger would dress in all white like the SAIMR top official Keith Maxwell to prove a point or how they go to locales where the suspects stayed decades ago. Some of those times involve parallel pictures and video to fuse the past and present. This could’ve been a more straightforward production, but those extra touches made this even greater than I expected. I have to give props to those journalists doing some hardcore research to get names and information. I swear Brügger and Björkdahl deserve awards for their journalism and interview skills much like Edmond Nyabola in Preying Missionaries. Those Scandinavians put in that work to find out about this sinister plot. I also have to give props to the secretaries. They weren’t acting as eye candy or god forbid race buffers. They played a major role in asking questions and finding out the best ways to get the story out there. Once the main plot twist about SAIMR is mentioned (I’ll get to it later), they are so visibly distraught while typing away. If I was them, I’d be flipping a table with what I heard and things would’ve been worse if I was in the same room as some of the interviewees. The content, journalism, and production were wonderful in telling this tragic tale that goes through all types of twists and turns. There have been times when I thought about why certain turns happened, but things did intersect in ways I never expected.
Then came THAT scene. I haven’t felt this much tear-soaked rage since Preying Missionaries even though I knew about the part in that movie.
The investigators go all the way to South Africa to get information from SAIMR operatives especially getting intel from the late Maxwell. They get in contact with one of the other top operatives named Alexander Jones. He complies with an interview with them and manages to confess some of the most horrific things done during his time at SAIMR. What was this organization doing during Apartheid South Africa? Jones and others did biological warfare against the black population. They were injecting Africans with fake vaccines loaded with HIV, AIDS, and other fatal viruses not just in South Africa, but in Mozambique, Zambia, and Namibia as well as aiding coups in Angola. Once the real Black independent media got wind of this movie after it made the rounds at Sundance, this was a big “told you so” moment. There was even a document made by Maxwell that declared how South Africa will be a white majority country by the year 2000. Keep in mind, that these experiments and biological terrorism went on even in the 90s. I was appalled to hear these atrocities. Isn’t this the same kind of devilry that got the Nazis tried and convicted in The Hague? How are the surviving SAIMR members not in jail? Oh, I know why. It’s the complexion for the protection as they kept things hush-hush for so long. This is maddening and those people need to be tried for human rights abuses. Of course, some people thought it was just a conspiracy theory and one example mentioned in the film thought it was a hoax to benefit Russia. What would Jones have to gain for lying about all of these rampant abuses across Southern Africa? Why would he go into hiding and eventually flee from South Africa after doing the interview? This is all too true and he could’ve gone even further with what he knew.
Now, do you believe this and other abuses done to Africans across the diaspora?
Cold Case Hammarskjöld could use a few more clues here and there. While the information is critical, I did think that the documentary meandered at times. It does come around to connect all the parts of the story together, but it does take a while to do so. In the DVD I rented, I wondered why every piece of dialogue needed to be subtitled. As an English speaker, I could understand the foreign language sections in some of the interviews, but I was able to understand what was being said more often than not. Side note: I can’t be the only one who had a better time understanding the Zambian interviewees than Brügger because of his Danish accent and also because English is one of the official languages in that country. Just saying. I wasn’t a fan of some of the epilogue narratives even if it was uncomfortable truths. It makes sense because a lot of the evidence was destroyed or heavily redacted because of SAIMR and other intelligence agencies, but I thought it was a bit wishy-washy even with the confessions and cold hard evidence on display (no pun intended).
This documentary certainly fits in my list of uncomfortable truths much like Preying Missionaries, the Bananas!* series, I Am Not Your Negro, and Hate Crimes In the Heartland. Cold Case Hammarskjöld was such a brutal investigative work that uses so many aspects of filmmaking, role-playing, and animation to highlight these points which prove the UN Secretary General was murdered. The revelation of SAIMR’s operations was disturbing and it shows how Africa has been slaughtered by colonization even during my lifetime. The evidence is insurmountable with so many governments involved in the death of Hammarskjöld which sounds like a thriller but in real life. There are some moments where the documentary does waver though. Trust me, Cold Case Hammarsköld is nothing but unadulterated cutthroat documentary-making and I couldn’t recommend this strongly enough.
Adjustable Rating System:
Subtract 1-3 points if atrocities against Africa or government coups make you really uncomfortable.
Subtract 1-2 points if you want more straightforward documentaries in production.
-On point investigative journalism
-Unique production techniques
-Amazing display of humanity at its best and worst (Brügger’s self-doubt was also fascinating)
-Does meander at time
-Some choices in the end weren’t so great despite the quality of information
Final Score: 10/10 points
Content Warning: Cold Case Hammarskjöld is for mature audiences only. There may only be a couple instances of strong language and some drug use, but the content is graphic. The plot revolves around the death of the UN Secretary General and you see pictures of his bloody corpse with the ace of spades card on his collar and charred bodies in the same crash. The concept of government coups, colonization, and straight-up genocide is mentioned which get extremely disturbing.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Cold Case Hammarskjöld is property of Magnolia Pictures. The DVD cover is from Barnes & Noble and is property of Magnolia Pictures.