Monday, March 04, 2019

True/False 2019: A Boot to the Face Forever

Cold Case Hammarskjöld

George Orwell, ever the optimist, once suggested that "If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face--forever." This undercurrent of despair underlines several of this year's documentaries, which chronicle the future of labor, the future of governments, the pre-apocalyptic mood of generations waiting for climate change to get worse, and the underlying sickness afflicting everything.

If even a tenth of the assertions offered in Mads Brügger's Cold Case Hammarskjöld (2019) are true, then we live in a darker, more horrifying world than most of us ever imagined. Cold Case Hammarskjöld is ostensibly an investigation into the theory that the United Nations' first secretary general, Dag Hammarskjöld, was murdered in 1961 to stop his push to protect the newly independent nations of Africa. Brügger admits at the outset that he suspects that he is chasing a conspiracy theory, but as the case unfolds and leads are followed, the scope of the investigations broaden well beyond the original premise. The narrative is derailed by a shadowy private security organization called "The South African Institute of Marine Research" or SAIMR, which in the competing realities offered by the film, is either a hobby for playacting spies by a South African crank, or a centuries old organization in the service of the great powers, seeking to bend Africa to the will of white supremacy. In the latter role, it's a clearinghouse for mercenaries and assassins, conspicuously mentioned but not illuminated by South Africa's post-Apartheid truth and reconciliation commissions, and, additionally, an instrument researching the weaponization of vaccines tainted with HIV and administered to the black populations of sub-Sahara Africa.

The question that plagues the film is this one: is any of this true? The persona of director Mads Brügger, who centers himself in the film as he did in his previous film on Africa, The Ambassador, is such that this all might be a conspiracy theory after all. Brügger styles himself as a gonzo journalist a la Hunter S. Thompson, and prefers a cinematic style that borders on manic. Mid-film, as the investigation stalls, he admits that he doesn't care that much about the Dag Hammarskjöld, and that the way he has chosen to tell the story, assuming the persona of his white-suited villain and dictating it to two separate African women in two separate hotel rooms in two different African cities is a cinematic prank of sorts. But then the bottom drops out and evidence comes to light that the story he's following might be true in all its particulars (including the involvement of the CIA and MI-6), and the ironic persona slips.

The film reaches the conclusion that Dag Hammarskjöld was actually murdered in a plot by a pilot named Jan Van Risseghem on behalf of the CIA and Belgian mining interests and that SAIMR actually was engaging in biological warfare and genocide and that one of the women working on that project was murdered to hush her up. The film makes a convincing case, though it leaves behind that niggling shadow of a doubt. It's certainly right about one thing: "liver-spotted old men," as the film describes them, will be the death of us all.

A case in point: Petra Costa's new film, The Edge of Democracy (2019), about the crisis in Brazilian presidential politics, a crisis that is similarly motivated by corruption over resources that are coveted by world powers and by white supremacy. Like all of Costa's films, this one is viewed through a personal lens. Her parents were leftist radicals in the 1960s and 70s when the military dictatorship forced them into hiding. Her broader family, however, prospered in the construction business on the other side of the ideological fence. The film follows this history, before turning its attention to the rise of labor leader and the founder of Brazil's Worker's Party, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula for short, who eventually became Brazil's 35th president. In his time in office, Lula was the most popular head of state anywhere in the world. His successor, Dilma Rousseff, was not so lucky. Her experience in office, and her eventual impeachment, have eerie similarities to the campaign against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election in the USA (down to chants of "lock her up!"). Both Lula and Dilma are caught up in the machinations of a rogue judge and his "Operation Car Wash," looking into corruption related to Petrobras, Brazil's national petroleum company, and as the movie shows, Dilma is ousted on dubious pretexts. Particularly damning are the recorded phone calls between the Vice President, Michel Temer and a Petrobras executive, conspiring to remove her to make the corruption inquiry go away.

Costa's level of access to these events and the individuals involved--Lula appears to view her as family--is striking. She's inside the presidential residence for a lot of this and has no trouble getting interviews from members of congress. She talks particularly to congressman and now Brazil's current president, Jair Bolsonaro, who the filmmakers clearly view as the end of Brazilian democracy and the rebirth of fascist autocracy. Temer probably deserves that title, though, because even though he's clearly guilty of high crimes, he doesn't suffer the same political fate of his predecessor. Brazil's conservative party clearly benefits from a version of America's tendency to look the other way when it's Republicans committing high crimes and misdemeanors. Also striking is the footage Costa has gathered of opposing mobs and man on the street sound bites. The number of people longing for the return of the military dictatorship clearly alarms her.

Costas's previous films are dreamy meditations on personal matters, and that tendency continues in this film, though the scope of this film is well beyond mere personal concerns. Though that's probably mis-stating the case. The personal is the political and vice versa, after all. Costa's voice as the narrator of the film is melancholy and ever-present and there is never any illusion that this is anything other than her own experience of events, but she brings the receipts when she has a point to make. The statement of fact at the outset that Brazil imported more slaves than any other country finds echoes in the racist resentment that brings Bolsonaro to power and in the despair of African-descended Brazilians at that event. Even before that, she pointedly shows that Temer's cabinet when he takes over the presidency is all male and all white. Here is another film that identifies the supremacy of old white men as the root cause of the evils in the world and of Brazil's own national sickness.

Costa chooses to to send the audience to the exits with the notion that democracy is an illusion conjured by a corrupt elite and when they eventually get tired of it, it ends. The mirror it holds up to the USA in particular is chilling. It's a deeply pessimistic film.

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