clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

‘Cold Case Hammarskjöld’ and ‘What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?’ Are Two of the Year’s Best Documentaries

One is a tale of crime, conspiracy, and colonialism, the other is a portrait of life in Louisiana, and both are must-see films

KimStim Films/Ringer illustration

He said it, I didn’t. Back in June, Sean Fennessey wondered on The Ringer’s Big Picture podcast whether 2019 was the Worst Movie Summer Ever, a question worth asking, considering the increasing omnipresence of franchise-branded movies and their impact on the visibility and viability of anything without an Avenger in it. The long-term effects of the Mouse monopoly on Western pop culture’s most valuable intellectual properties (with Marvel and Star Wars as the equivalent of putting hotels on Park Place and Boardwalk) won’t be fully known for a while, but the possibilities are fully dystopian: Imagine a reboot stamping on a human face, forever.

In the meantime, the best way to cope with the declining quality of big films is to seek out smaller ones—to look for quality on the margins. As disappointing a year as 2019 has been for mainstream entertainments, it’s yielded more than its share of solid and even extraordinary nonfiction features, two of which have just been released in theaters and could end up as contenders for year-end 10-best lists.

Cold Case Hammarskjöld

At one point in Cold Case Hammarskjöld, director-star Mads Brügger—a muckraking journalist slash performance artist who has drawn comparisons to Nick Broomfield and Sacha Baron Cohen—jokes that his new film is about “a conspiracy theory for senior citizens.” It’s a self-deprecating joke at the expense of a movie whose narrative is rooted in the history of the early 1960s, but it’s weird how the zeitgeist works. With the endless speculation that emerged in the wake of Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide, Cold Case Hammarskjöld’s wild postulations about secret political assassinations and biologically engineered viruses have a gripping, gruesome urgency: Watching it is like getting sucked into a Reddit thread at 3 in the morning.

Brügger’s collaborator here is a Swedish private investigator named Goran Björkdahl, who has spent years looking into the 1961 plane-crash death of United Nations secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld, seen at the time as a potentially transformational figure in global diplomacy by attempting to liberate African countries from their various colonial legacies. Björkdahl’s belief that Hammarskjöld’s plane was actually shot down provides Brügger with the jumping-off point for his documentary, which follows the two men as they start making contacts in a mercenary underworld whose members are surprisingly forthcoming with what would seem to be incendiary information.

That Hammarskjöld’s death was a hit turns out to be a bit of an open secret—something that those close to the story have always suspected. It’s the revelations that start shaking loose as a result of their investigation that turn out to be truly horrifying, culminating in a sort of grand unified theory of First World meddling in the Third World. After a while, the movie stops being about a single act of clandestine interventionism and turns into a meditation on an insidious form of mass killing—what Brügger calls “the world’s biggest murder mystery.”

Suffice it to say that, in its second half, Cold Case Hammarskjöld swings for the fences, and much of what gets brought up in the home stretch is unverifiable one way or the other. But the fact that what Brügger is hinting at feels so credible speaks both to our collective bad faith about the legacy of America’s intelligence agencies and a larger sense of disillusionment about the fate of would-be heroes or innovators. While Brügger never makes any explicit connections between Hammarskjöld’s death and other high-profile casualties of the 1960s (from JFK to Malcolm X), the implication is that those with a vested interest in the status quo have never had any compunction about killing to keep it that way. The question at the end of Brügger’s skillfully assembled and vertiginously paranoid real-life thriller is not so much whether you believe every detail of the story, but rather, given what we know about the way of the world, what’s really keeping you from buying in.

What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?

One day, when film professors are putting together cinematic syllabuses of the Trump era, Roberto Minervini’s 2015 documentary The Other Side will be required viewing. Shot in West Monroe, Louisiana, the film—which straddles the line between pure observation and artistic collaboration between the director and his subjects—depicts a community of rural whites wracked with anxiety, economic and otherwise. Its characters are meth addicts and militiamen who casually share their fantasies of revolution with the camera. They’re so comfortable with Minervini, who always embeds himself in the places he shoots, that any semblance of a rhetorical filter disappears. The unforgettable climax, set at a carnivalesque lakeside party teeming with obscene anti-Obama iconography and proudly displayed automatic weapons, felt ominous at the time. Retrospectively, it looks like a form of cultural prophecy.

Minervini’s follow-up, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, could be described as the other other side: It’s once again set in Louisiana (with additional sequences in Mississippi), but focused exclusively on African American characters—a group invoked in the earlier film only via some disparagingly racist asides. Once again, Minervini’s process involved spending an extended time in his chosen location. In an interview with IndieWire, he explained that his original plan was to make a movie about Judy Hill, the proprietor of a struggling bar in New Orleans, and her attempt to save her business in the midst of the city’s post-Katrina economic downturn.

Judy is still very much a central figure in What You Gonna Do, but she’s by no means its sole protagonist. The film features three main strands, switching between the story of the bar—which doubles as a character study of Judy—and a set of other narratives. In one, two brothers (teenage Ronaldo and 9-year-old Titus) navigate their neighborhood together, their conversations about a fraught day-to-day reality (their mother tells them in no uncertain terms to be home before dark) captured in a series of astonishingly fluid and intimate long takes. In another, a local chapter of the New Black Panther Party is shown canvassing their neighborhood to protest a recent wave of violence, including a homicide attributed to the Ku Klux Klan. Finally, we’re shown a cohort of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians preparing for and participating in vivid, public displays of celebration.

Minervini doesn’t belabor the links between his segments, but gradually, we see how they inform and contextualize one another. The Panthers’ mandate is made even more immediate when perceived through the prism of Ronaldo and Titus’s vulnerability; the Indians’ joyous, ritualized performances are juxtaposed against the activists’ chants, as well as Judy’s defiant music-making at her bar’s closing-night party. With no voice-over to guide us, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? risks abstraction, and an argument could be made that presenting images without exposition turns the movie into an aesthetic exercise—and maybe even an act of high-toned, well-intentioned exploitation.

I’ve heard such complaints—that Minervini’s status as a European filmmaker taints his presentation of African American characters—from colleagues, and it’s an argument worth making and considering (as it was regarding the more consciously unflattering moments in The Other Side, which at times resembled a Deep South horror show). A case can be made that Minervini isn’t the ideal person to tell the stories in either film, but imputing bad faith to his motivations seems reductive, especially since his style gamely points up its own contradictions and complexities. The crystalline black-and-white cinematography evokes the journalistic imagery of the 1950s and ’60s (the time of the American civil rights movement) but also calls attention to the racial dynamics at work: It implies a level of artifice and distance that might be dissolved by living color. “I was taken aback that this approach could be seen as an aestheticization,” Minervini told Cinema Scope. “[That’s] what I actually thought shooting in color would create, because color lends itself tremendously to manipulation of what’s beautiful and what’s not.”

As close as Minervini seems to his subjects, both in terms of his camera movement and the sense of trust that allows him such intimate access, the movie doesn’t pretend to be anything but observational. What makes Minervini such a unique filmmaker is that he understands how to observe in a way that heightens his audience’s attentiveness without telling us what to think. In the end, I’m not sure that What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? really “says” anything, and that’s OK. Sometimes, the simple acts of looking and listening trump any attempts at eloquence.