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Sundance Film Festival 2019: Cold Case Hammarskjöld, Light From Light

Marin Ireland in Light From Light (photo by Greta Zozula)

I’m not at Sundance this year but, thanks to a generous smattering of pre-screenings, still playing along from home. Of the six titles I saw in advance, I was most curious about what kind of reception Mads Brügger’s Cold Case Hammarskjöld would receive. Based on his first two films, I’d pegged Brügger as a sort of more self-serious Sacha Baron Cohen; both blur the lines between journalist and satirist, parachuting themselves into definitely nerve-wracking, potentially dangerous situations under false pretenses in service of (at least aspirationally) a larger social agenda. Both Brügger’s The Red Chapel and The Ambassador placed the undisguisably Danish-accented, seemingly unflappable director/”star” in, respectively, North Korea and the Central African Republic; conceptual audacity and practical safety concerns aside, in both cases there didn’t seem to be much larger point. In the former, Brügger hit the impermeable wall North Korea seems to present to every westerner with cameras; in the latter, he definitely demonstrated the presence of corruption and neocolonial abuse of power by enacting it, but that didn’t particularly seem like news.

Hammarskjöld is literally breaking news but deliberately buries the lede; the first half is historical recap, the second the headline-generator. Introducing his NYC screening, Brügger joked that he normally keeps his movies at the 90-minute mark out of respect for the human bladder, apologizing for making this one 126 minutes. In part, I suspect the longer running time was necessary because of the sheer volume of information that needs to be conveyed. The film starts from Brügger’s investigation into whether the plane crash death of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld in 1961 was an accident, as officially concluded at the time, or a targeted killing. This is not a new question, and even before Brügger’s film, long-brewing investigations were providing additional credibility for the more sinister conclusion (e.g. this report from two weeks ago), exact culpability TBD. What was once, per Brügger, a “conspiracy theory for senior citizens” will almost have its legitimacy confirmed, per a typical historical march towards acknowledging awful things long after the window for in-person accountability has passed.

Setting up camp in a hotel, Brügger hires two different secretaries to type his narration on a 1961-vintage typewriter as part of a large amount of self-reflexive scaffolding. It’s clear from the beginning that the investigation is concluded, or nearly so, and that Brügger is talking though what he’s found; we need to sit back and pay attention to the full contextual presentation before the big reveal. Along with narration, the typewriter also generates chapter titles and bullet points on cards; hung to the wall, they introduce each segment by teasing what we’re about to see. Halfway through, we get a fairly remarkable admission from the formerly unshakeable Brügger. In a segment labeled “a moment of total honesty,” he 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: travel, tracking down unsavory former mercenaries, colorfully poking the colonial past. But the investigation wasn’t getting where he wanted,  and he was spinning his wheels while interviewing “dozens of elderly white men with liver spots.” Why two secretaries? 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 neo-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.

Briefly, what Brügger establishes in the second half is that responsibility for executing the hit seems to belong to the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR), a laughable cover name for a group of mercenaries et al. that spent the post-colonial era busily undermining nascent African democracies, executing assassinations and otherwise abetting the will of the CIA, the British government and whatever other powers were paying. In its broad outlines, there is nothing remotely surprising about this: if someone tells me something bad about the CIA, I tend to automatically assume it’s likely to be true. Why wouldn’t I? This is an organization whose history of lying and reckless intervention (to use a word that seems like an especially offensive euphemism) was summed up in a book titled Legacy of Ashes; there’s nothing I would put past them. The bigger picture isn’t startling on its own; what stings are the grody specifics from an awful part of recent history that is now just barely/possibly safe to start investigating. For the New York Times, that’s not the takeaway: their first story on the film is headlined “Quest to Solve Assassination Mystery Revives an AIDS Conspiracy Theory.” Specifically, Brügger scores an interview with one mercenary who says SAIMR’s since-deceased director, Kenneth Maxwell, was deliberately infecting black Africans with HIV at low-cost clinics claiming to help prevent the disease. This is an old conspiracy theory, to be sure, and the Times story immediately notes that “Scientists immediately cast doubt on the claim, which they called medically dubious [… and] warned that the claim could cause serious harm in South Africa” by undermining the work of physicians there.

I am, obviously, not a medical expert; if the two eminently respectable doctors Matt Apuzzo’s story quotes say the possibility of this being done successfully are “close to zero,” I’m not arguing. What troubles me is how the Times story focuses so much on this specific point, thereby mostly eliding the film’s larger investigative conclusion, which seems impossible to argue with: the CIA has much, much more to answer for than we (already) know about, and we haven’t nearly entered the “post” part of “post-colonial history” yet. I don’t want to suggest anything untoward about the reasons for publishing this piece, but it acts as misdirection. Spike Lee received pushback for including, in When the Levees Broke, an interview with a man claiming New Orleans flooding during Katrina was because of deliberate bomb detonations at the dams; Lee’s perfectly reasonable response was that while he didn’t believe it, an American history that including the Tuskegee experiments grounded such a paranoid theory in demonstrable, genocidal precedent, and the person voicing that claim deserved to be heard as part of a continuum of historical experience. Even if the HIV claims in Hammarskjöld turn out to be false, I have trouble concluding that they’ll embolden anti-vaxxers (who’ll cling onto anything they can get, even if it’s not there) or that, implicitly, the whole of the film is therefore not credible and we shouldn’t worry too much. Brügger’s film is ultimately very sad: it indicts villains who are no longer present as an object lesson in how systemic evil can be eventually discovered but never corrected. Despairing about its own project, I think Hammarskjöld is still news that should generate immediate further investigation rather than pushback predicated on an appeal to the authority of the grown-ups in the room. I may well be out of my depth and could live to regret that conclusion, especially if it turns out this is on some level a prank; sad to say, I doubt it very much.

In an interview with Knoxville-based filmmaker Paul Harrill and producing partner Ashley Maynor around the time of the release of Harrill’s first feature, Something, Anything, the writer-director defined part of his project: “Religion is such a fundamental part of the Southern experience, and yet what I’ve seen on the screen so rarely is a depiction of my observations of that. So many movies either don’t acknowledge that religion and spirituality are a thing at all, or — on the other side of the spectrum — there are these faith-based movies that are religious propaganda. I wanted to tell a story that acknowledged the foundational role religion has played in so many people’s lives, while at the same time resisting a story that was advocating any sort of religious doctrine.” I have a deep aversion to most aspects of American Christian experience and practice, but I also see Harrill’s point; it’s a worthy goal, one he continues to pursue in Light After Light.

The film structure is almost suspiciously orderly and easy to parse; there’s either a whole ineffable dimension to it, or I’m trying hard to discern something that’s not there, but I suspect (or at least hope) it’s the former. There are three anchoring characters, whose concerns mirror each other precisely. Shelia (Marin Ireland) works as an airport rental-car counter service person; as a child, she had at least one vision that seemed prescient, and she’s still not sure whether she believes in an afterlife. (This question is posed bluntly in an opening radio interview with her: “Would you consider yourself a believer or a skeptic?”) Once part of a paranormal investigation team, Shelia is still available for freelance hire. Widower Richard (Jim Gaffigan) thinks his late wife (a plane crash fatality) is still a presence in the house; he’s felt reassuring invisible hands on his shoulder, and keys left on the kitchen counter have inexplicably moved. Richard wonders whether there’s life after life, and he also questions the value of his marriage in the wake of its abrupt ending and some previously unknown facts about his wife. Shelia’s teenage son Owen (Josh Wiggins) has a friend, Lucy (Atheena Frizzell), who wants to be more than a friend; he’s leapt ahead, from before the beginning to the potential end when Lucy will move away for college, and therefore can’t commit to a relationship inevitably doomed to end shortly. If that seems laughably somber for a high schooler, Owen’s concerns chime with the film’s triply-twined worrying about love, what it means after it’s over, and what it means when everythings over.

One of my least favorite critical cliches is the hands-thrown-up-in-the-air description of a film where “nothing happens, but somehow everything does.” Light From Light might almost have been to make such a description impossible, insofar as at the end something definitely happens. Prior, much of this is indeed in the “nothing happens” vein, in ways that are self-consciously restrained. When Shelia spends a night alone in Richard’s house, running tests to tease out any haunting specter, the visual language—darkness and shadows, menacing hallways and the sudden fall of a book from its shelf—flirts with horror, briefly blurring genre lines, but the movie isn’t going anyplace quite so dramatic. There is a porch conversation between Shelia and Richard whose visual language indicates this is the thematic centerpiece; the lengthy exchange is almost entirely in shot/reverse shot, privileging the performers and quiet dialogue over all else and urging us to pay closer than usual attention. And yet, the substance of the conversation both is and isn’t weighty; there are details and anecdotes touching on mortal matters but no huge reveals, and the movie proceeds almost undisturbed from its centerpiece.

There are other levels on which Light From Light seems withholding, even obdurate, refusing to do what most films would do in its place. These negative decisions are generally correct: there’s no goosing of a potential/inevitable romance between Shelia and Richard. Just because they’re unattached, heterosexual and the lead protagonists doesn’t mean their coupling, or not, has to be dutifully checked off. Harrill makes time to observe Shelia’s stultifying shifts and the work of municipal park officials; it’s a film unostentiously grounded in its setting, making time for its protagonists’ lives without every scene underlining or tying into its obvious thematic concerns. It became clear eventually that whatever conclusion the film would reach would only come in its final minutes, via a plant from so much earlier that I’d forgotten about it (the definition of a successful plant); I’m not sure if the conclusion entirely recodes everything seen before, but it was extremely satisfying on a level I can’t quite place. I’m still not quite sure what’s going on in there, and this is almost certainly a good thing.

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