Who killed the second secretary-general of the United Nations and why after nearly 58 years should we even care? Two questions at the heart of Cold Case Hammarskjöld, an intriguing documentary showing at Ster Kinekor Gateway as part of the Durban International Film Festival.
Swede Dag Hammarskjöld perished when his plane crashed in September 1961, in Ndola, in the then Northern Rhodesia. The wreckage was subsequently buried, but in the absence of a conclusive explanation of the incident, the conspiracy theories have refused to die down.
Were the CIA or British intelligence behind it?
Were they acting for a Belgian mining corporation mixed up in the Congo’s Katanga secession, whose interests were threatened by Hammarskjöld? Was his plane shot down or was a bomb on board? Might South African spooks have been involved?
Danish journalist-filmmaker Mads Brügger and Swedish private investigator Göran Bjorkdahl attempt to unearth the truth.
Initially the eccentric, bald and ginger-bearded Brügger and the mild-mannered Bjorkdahl rake over some very old coals and deploy a fair few theatrical devices and visual gags.
Out come pith helmets and spades; out come decks of playing cards and a recurring ace of spades, the “death card”; out comes an old manual typewriter and much bashing out of scene outlines, the bare bones of the story.
The tired hack drinks in a moodily lit African tavern; uncertainty swirls about him.
The gags and arch humour may initially cause the viewer to question whether our man is more offbeat style than substance. Can he and his team really break new ground in what is, as the title of their piece suggests, a cold case?
But things heat up. Brügger, never shy to place himself front and centre in the manner of much contemporary documentary making, is oddly engaging and shows some real journalistic moxie.
He works the lines on his smartphone as they drive the highways of Johannesburg, tracking down people linked to a shadowy South African mercenary-paramilitary organisation. He visits the ruins of its base, interviews retired officers and even doorsteps the elderly widow of a Belgian pilot who may (or may not have) shot down the Douglas DC-6 that was carrying Hammarskjöld and 15 others.
Ultimately the documentary, to use the cliché, raises more questions than it provides definitive answers. But it does provide a compelling glimpse into a dark corner of South Africa’s not-so-long-ago history and some extraordinarily sinister goings-on.
And to return to our second question: why should we still care about Hammarskjöld’s death nearly 58 years on?
Well, says the documentary-makers, things may have played out quite differently in post-colonial Africa if the high-minded diplomat had survived.
There’s a telling moment in the latter part of Cold Case Hammarskjöld, when Brügger’s team finds a scrawled name and number in an old contact book once the property of the mother of a young woman, an associate it is believed of the organisation, who was murdered in mysterious circumstances. Brügger dials the number and gets through to the blue blood of South African business.
Greed and a scramble for resources have shaped the continent’s history, the thesis goes, and big corporates have much to answer for. – MH
- The multi-award winning Cold Case Hammarskjöld is among the 80 feature films, scores of documentaries, short films, events and workshops showing at the Durban International Film. The festival, in its 40th year, opened on 18 July and runs at 15 venues across the city until Sunday, 28 July. Cold Case Hammarskjöld will be screened for a second time at Gateway on Thursday, 25 July, at 4pm. It runs for 128 minutes. For more details on the festival, see www.durbanfilmfest.co.za or call 031 260 2506/1816.