Rating: NNNNNDirector Kevin Macdonald calls his Oscar-winning documentary One Day In September a thriller, which is upsetting a whole lot.
Director Kevin Macdonald calls his Oscar-winning documentary One Day In September a thriller, which is upsetting a whole lot of viewers. It tells the story of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre in which 11 Israeli coaches and athletes were killed by the PLO terrorist squad Black September.
However, One Day In September isn’t your regular talking-heads documentary. Macdonald presents interviews with relatives of the murdered Israelis, German officials and Black September’s single surviving member, Jamal Al Gashey. The interviews are meshed with assembled footage that recounts the entire day, from the hostage-taking in the Olympic Village to its brutal resolution on the airport tarmac. And he backs up the images with a Led Zeppelin soundtrack.
“We suspend some traditional documentary notions, and we don’t expect the film will appeal to everyone,” says Macdonald on the line from London, “but I’m very OK with that, because I’ve made a lot of documentaries, written a book about documentaries and know my history of the form. We’re trying to blend the current-affairs, investigative film with something that has cinematic oomph.”
Macdonald, the brother of Trainspotting producer Andrew Macdonald and the grandson of legendary filmmaker Emeric Pressburger, sounds sure of himself, and in a way his film evinces a kind of arrogance. It doesn’t attempt to give an overview of the Arab-Israeli conflict, nor does it set out to show the complicated political situation that was brewing in the early 70s between the two factions. Instead, it wants to put us there, in Munich, on that horrible day.
“This subject had been tackled in bits and pieces — 10 minutes on CNN, that kind of thing,” notes Macdonald. “But it hasn’t had the impact that you get with our film.
“One of the reasons we chose this subject was that it was witnessed by the world on television. Thousands of journalists were there, gathered around the apartment in the Olympic Village. But the film shows what went wrong, and that’s never been discussed before. That’s the new information.”
What went wrong? German officials — the Munich police, Bavarian militia and federal officials — bungled multiple rescue attempts.
“It’s up to the audience to make up their minds about who’s to blame or whether blame is even the appropriate response,” says Macdonald emphatically.
“The film shows the absolute horror and hopelessness of the situation, and although it points fingers at incompetence, it doesn’t blame individuals. I feel that there must be a sense of relief among some of those in Munich in having what happened revealed. At least now the story is out, and what caused all the trouble is that they tried to cover it up. We haven’t got to the bottom of absolutely everything, but we revealed quite a lot of lies.”
One of the most chilling aspects of the film is its inclusion of PLO terrorist Jamal Al Gashey. He lives in hiding somewhere in Africa with his wife and daughter, afraid of a possible assassination attempt. He’s never before spoken about his role in the operation.
“Very early on in my research, I discovered he had almost given an interview to a journalist a few years ago,” remembers Macdonald. “But then he got frightened away at the last minute. We tried to contact the Palestinian journalist, but she never got back to us, and it was all rather murky because there was talk that she was an agent of some sort and he didn’t trust her.
“So we knew he was at least thinking about talking. Our film would only be good if we got people from all sides to speak, and it was clear he wanted to tell his side of the story.”
He may have wanted to talk, but it took almost eight hours of halting dialogue to get 30 minutes of usable footage.
The film’s ending — a montage sequence that includes images of the mangled and mutilated bodies of the victims — is also controversial. Is it too much?
“People often come out of the film feeling quite shaken, and that’s surely the point,” says Macdonald. “This is about 11 innocent people who were killed and the people who killed them and why they killed them. In an overall sense, it’s about the Middle Eastern conflict. All of those things are brutal, bloody, gory and difficult, and part of the reason people don’t pay attention to them is that they don’t see the true horror associated with them.
“I thought, let’s slap people in the face so they don’t just think, ‘Oh, what an exciting story.’ They should think, ‘Jesus, this is horrible.'”