Urban Cinefile  
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Wednesday March 25, 2020 


Kevin Macdonald explains why he wanted to make this film and how important and impossibly difficult it was to get people to talk about the events of the Munich Olympics of 1972, when Palestinians, members of Black September, took 11 Israeli athletes hostage during the first Olympics beamed via satellite around the world.

What I wanted to do with One Day In September was to make a documentary different than anything I had seen before: a documentary thriller, one that would work as a film at the cinema. I wanted it to have a strong narrative grip and to pull the emotions of the audience, while at the same time investigating and revealing the extraordinary facts behind this event in a detailed and trustworthy way.

"sport and murder"

One of the key things that piqued my interest as a filmmaker was the morbid connection between sport and murder. In some ways the Munich massacre was the ultimate transgression -the destruction of an ideal of peace and brotherhood. But as we are now only too well aware the Olympic movement is not as pure as snow - nor was it ever. In fact Avery Brundage, President of the IOC in 1972 was instrumental in the success of the 1936 so-called Nazi Olympics, persuading the US delegation to attend in the face of political opposition.

He was friendly with Hitler and - in perhaps the first recorded case of IOC bribery - his construction company in the US was given the contract to build the new Germany embassy in Washington, as a reward for his help. There is, in other words, a cynical, even sinister, aspect to a sporting event like the Olympics -and perhaps even to the sportsmen and women who take part -that I was interested in exploring.

"reluctance to talk"

Perhaps the biggest problem we faced in making the film was simply to get people to talk on camera. For instance, it took 6 months of persuasion and arm twisting to get Zvi Zamir, the ex-head of Mossad to agree to an interview. In Germany in particular there was a general reluctance to talk -a reluctance that naturally fueled our sense that something major was being covered up.

It took almost a year to get Hans Dietrich Gensher (then German Minister of the Interior, who has never previously talked in public at all about Munich) to do a brief interview -in which he agreed to cover only very limited ground and refused to speak in English, a language in which he is fluent. An order was sent to all serving members of the Bavarian police not to speak to us. Retired policemen and women were threatened with loss of their pension.

The one ex- policeman who agreed to talk - Heinz Hohensinn - did so only because he had no pension to lose. Even so, he told us that pressure was applied by ex-colleagues to stop him from talking. In the end we managed to get just about everybody we wanted on camera - although there were several minor players, such as the marksmen and helicopter pilots who were unpersuadable, "why should I be the first one to stick my neck out?" one of them told me.

"from every perspective"

From the outset I wanted One Day In September to tell the story of Munich from every perspective - including that of the Palestinians. My initial enquiries directed at official PLO sources met with a stony silence. I was not even sure if anyone was left alive. I heard rumours that one, none or all three of the Palestinian survivors of Munich were alive - perhaps in Latin America, the Gulf or Africa.

But through a series of lucky meetings (which I am reluctant to go into in too much detail, for obvious reasons) I found myself in contact with a Palestinian who knew all about the three survivors because he had grown up with them in the Chatila camp in Beirut. This man was able to tell me definitively that only one, Jamal al Gashey (his real name, like that of his colleagues, was not previously known) was still alive. The other two had been killed by the Israelis in the late seventies. He took me to meet their families, and the families of other members of the Black September squad. Many of them were still living in refugee camps.

Then, over the next 6 months my contact tried to persuade Jamal to emerge from hiding and talk. We argued that only by confronting his past would he ever be able to escape it. Now was the time to talk, as the monumental tide of peace rolled in slowly but inevitably over the Middle East. He agreed. Several meetings were arranged and cancelled at the last moment. Twice I flew to destinations in the Middle East to rendezvous with him and he did not show up. Finally, in May last year (1998), Jamal travelled to Aman to do the interview. He was deeply paranoid and found it very difficult talking publicly about what he had done. With frequent diversions, tantrums and non-sequiturs, it took almost 8 hours to record only 30 minutes of usable interview.

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One Day in September, directed by Kevin Macdonald, narrated by Michael Douglas.
Winner, 2000 Academy Award, Best Documentary.

Jamal al Gashey - the last remaining member of the Black September squad who took the hostages.

Filmmaker Kevin Macdonald.

Above and below: scenes from real life.

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