It begins as a piece of amusing gonzo journalism, but Mads Brügger's documentary "Cold Case Hammarskjöld" ends up telling a chillingly plausible tale of assassination, murder and even attempted genocide.
The film's title refers to Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations secretary-general who died in a plane crash in 1961. An investigative commission found no proof of foul play, though questions have persisted ever since. Roughly half a century later, Brugger, a Danish filmmaker, and Göran Björkdahl, an independent investigator from Sweden, launched their own seven-year investigation. The result: a bizarre version of events that involves the CIA, MI6 and a shadowy group known as SAIMR — the South African Institute for Marine Research — whose weirdly dressed members may have carried out deadly missions.
Brügger's stranger-than-fiction film has become a festival favorite, winning the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award at Sundance in January and then playing smaller festivals after being acquired by Magnolia Pictures. The film screens Friday, July 26, at the Stony Brook Film Festival, then arrives in theaters Aug. 16.
"Everything is real. You can Google all the characters who are in the film," Brügger said during a recent interview in midtown Manhattan. Below is an edited version of that conversation.
When you began making this film, what did you think you'd find?
I was very skeptical about the likelihood that someone would actually dare to assassinate the secretary-general of the United Nations. It's like killing off the pope or something. It was considered a conspiracy theory for senior citizens. But then something really extraordinary happened. As we went along, the UN suddenly reopened the investigation. And it moved from the realm of conspiracy theory to the realm of conspiracy reality.
When did you realize your investigation was more than just a lark?
A very crucial point was meeting the former head of [South African] military intelligence, Tienie Groenewald. His wanting to see us was quite extraordinary. These guys don't do interviews normally. That was something that made Goran and I reconsider everything we knew. And it rebooted the whole film, and also our enthusiasm about continuing this never-ending investigation.
When you tell people this story, what reaction do you get?
My wife and my family and friends are pretty much sick and tired of me ranting about Dag Hammarskjöld. If you're not careful, you do tend to come across as a hardcore conspiracy theorist. You will begin bombarding people with facts and information and anomalies. Also, me not finishing my film became a running joke in Copenhagen. People asking: "So, Mads, how is your Dag Hammarskjöld film coming along?" That made me careful about not talking too much about my endeavors.
Conspiracy theories are almost mainstream now.
Yes! The American president is a conspiracy theorist.
Do you think it will make people more or less likely to believe your film?
Being a journalist, I am very careful with conspiracy theories. I have to be. But I also enjoy them. They are sort of pornography for journalists. And a little bit of conspiracy theory will also do you good. Sometimes, the theories turn out to be true.
WHEN | WHERE "Cold Case Hammarskjöld" screens Friday, July 26, at 7 p.m. as part of the Stony Brook Film Festival at Staller Center for the Arts at Stony Brook University. Tickets are $12. The screening is sold out, but a standby line will begin one hour before showtime. Call 631-632-2787 or go to stonybrookfilmfestival.com.