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"One Day in September" is a phenomenal documentary. Its focus is on the
hostage situation during the 1972 Munich Olympics when Palestinian
terrorists took Israeli athletes prisoner. The film does something which I
think any great documentary should when it covers or explores historical
events. It frames the entire hostage crisis in a larger context. Yes, the
film covers 21 hours of September 5th on which the hostage situation
commenced and (one could say) resolved itself. However, in order to
understand the reactions of the German government, the Israeli government,
the media and the Olympic Games' fans and participants, the film discusses
the German desire to create the atmosphere of peace to erase the stigma of
the 1936 Olympics, then full of Fascist propaganda. It touches on the
ongoing Israel-Arab conflict. It touches on the meaning of the
"One Day in September" never strays from its focus, however, which is to document the hostage crisis and what it meant. What makes the film great, aside from its intelligent approach to the subject, is how well the atmosphere of the hostage situation is carried across. By the end of the film you do feel like you've watched the news for a day, glued to the TV screen hoping that the people will make it out alive. Watching it, you are reminded of how ill-prepared states are for terrorist attacks (still rings true even recently) because of the ulterior motives of statesmen. A lot of what happens at the state, political level, happens because it has to look good. The Germans were unprepared for the terrorists because they thought that extreme police security would welcome images of pre-War Olympics in Germany. They wanted to appear a certain way. The same went for how they handled the crisis.
The film, like many terrorist crises, ends with a tragedy. What remains with the viewer is not only the deep sadness at how one of the most peaceful world events turns into one of the most hateful, but also how incredibly contemporary those events from over thirty years ago still seem.
One of my strongest memories of my grandparents farm was of watching the
1972 Olympics on their TV while vacationing there. I have faint memories of
the tragedy that transpired thirty odd years ago and watching this
documentary brings it all back for me.
This is one of the best documentaries out there. It tells simply and clearly what happened and why. Using both news footage of the event and interviews conducted recently, amazingly the interviews include one with the only surviving terrorist who is now in hiding, this story tells the tale completely and compellingly. You get sucked into it even though you know whats going to happen, or think you do. The amazing thing about this film is that even if you know what happened it still manages to surprise you with new information that wasn't available before.
This is a sad story told compellingly.
Watching this documentary is a harrowing experience. I think the DVD
is unique in that even its menu page looks terrifying. By the end of the
film, however, I was more angry than scared, because of the amazing level
incompetence German and Olympic officials showed in handling the hostage
situation. The media also behaved abominably, broadcasting play-by-play
accounts of the police's plans right into the ears of the terrorists. It
made me think that the Bush administration might be partially correct in
keeping the media in the dark about American military activities in
I don't understand why some people felt the film didn't give the "context" of the kidnapping. I think Jamal al Gashey, the only kidnapper left alive now, explained quite clearly why he did what he did. But if the film had spent an extra hour discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, would that have made a difference? In my mind, nothing justified the kidnapping of athletes who by their very presence at the Olympics were trying to further world understanding. I can't think of many things that do justify holding innocent hostages for ransom. The director seems to feel that way too. Apparently that makes the movie too biased for some viewers.
As for the comment that the movie "demonizes" the kidnappers, I don't agree. The filmmakers include a German official's statement that, if he had met him in a different situation, he would have liked the terrorist spokesman, Issa. al Gashey tells some very human stories, such as an ironic account of getting into the Olympic village with the help of American athletes out after curfew, and he insists that the plan was never to murder the Israelis. And al Gashey's brief but affecting account of being exiled from his childhood village does a lot more to argue the Palestinian side of the conflict than any brutal hostage-taking scheme. Too bad he never has realized that.
Interestingly, filmmaker Kevin MacDonald wrote that in Israel he has been accused of giving too much time to the Palestinians. He also notes that Simon Reeve wrote a companion book to the movie, because "there were many aspects of the story we could not include in a 90-minute film." It's a pity the existence of the book isn't publicized more (assuming it's any good).
I do wish the film had spent more time discussing the aftermath of the tragedy, and that MacDonald had used his incredible opportunity of interviewing the last remaining terrorist to ask him some more hard-hitting questions, instead of being satisfied with a step-by-step account of what the kidnappers did that day. (However, I just read that it was extremely difficult for MacDonald to get al Gashey to talk at all.
I wasn't completely convinced that the Germans colluded with the terrorists in the Lufthansa hijacking, and would have liked to see evidence for that. I would also have liked to learn more about the Black September group. Basically, I think the film should have been longer. If it was kept to its current length for some marketing reason, I think the sponsoring studio should rethink that rule.
However, the only choice I really wish the filmmaker had not made was to accompany extremely gruesome shots of bodies with loud psychedelic music. It would have been more respectful to show the images in silence.
Watching the film in light of the events of a day in September of 2001, and after, makes me think that the world hasn't come very far since 1972, in terms of solving the Middle East's problems.
As someone who was glued to ABC in 1972 during the entire terrorist act
very well done documentary brought back horrible memories. But the memory
of these murders must be kept alive because they obviously are not being
taught to our children in school as the comments by someone who had never
heard of the Olympic massacre point out.
The director pulls out all stops in presenting the story using archival footage, computer models, musical montages, film of the present day sites and interviews with the participants with the most noteworthy one being with the sole surviving murderer. The only criticism I have of the film is that the flashy editing sometimes works to trivialize the incidents.
It is very illuminating to read the prior comments made about this film. It is also very sad to see the morally bankrupt calls for putting the murders "in perspective" as if anything could justify the cold blooded massacre of innocents. But of course we hear those justifications today over the most recent massacres.
In Britain at least, this film has been strongly criticised by hardly
disinterested intellectual heavyweights like Edward Said and Tom Paulin.
The main argument against the film is that it takes place in an historical
vacuum, that it shows members of the 1972 Israeli Olympic team being taken
hostage by Palestinian terrorists, but it does not explain the political
reasons why this happened. This is largely true - although there is brief
mention at the beginning of the horrific camp conditions Palestinians
suffered in their own homeland appropriated by Israel, it says nothing
this highly contentious appropriation, about the natural urge to struggle
This is underscored by a blatantly manipulative structure - while the representative of the hostages is (necessarily) solitary, anonymous, in hiding, talking in shadows (the other surviving terrorists were murdered by Israeli assassination squads; this information is recorded in a coda that
seems like some kind of chilling reward for the audience); the dead men are shown as almost saintly - pictured getting married, with babies, smiling, honest, healthy, sporty, part of a community and tradition - one story talks about the high-minded ideals of one coach who fraternised with his political enemies from Lebanon.
Aside from the dubious shamelessness of this manipulation, I don't really have a problem with the film's focus. Coming from a country where political terrorists have, for thirty years, been slaughtering wholesale largely apolitical citizens in the name of justice, who have used bogus political ideology as a front for gangsterism, I am somewhat out of sympathy with anything that proclaims humanitarian motives and leaves innocent people dead. Critics complain that ONE DAY ignores the story of the Palestinians, their feelings of repression and injustice - and it is unlikely a film on this subject will have a voiceover from a powerful Hollywood player, and win an Oscar - but to do this would abstract the event, would turn it into a political chess game, and not a ghastly abomination where real people, far too young, with families, are unaccountably murdered. It is the stuff of paranoid modernist literature - you wake up one morning with all your friends, and by sheer random chance, you're held hostage and killed.
So if we agree that the film is fatally biased, we can see that it has many virtues. ONE DAY has been called a thriller - it was literally so for me because I'd never heard about this atrocity - and the techniques used (the pounding score, the edgy editing, the foregrounding of clocks and deadlines, the withholding of explanatory, hindsight information) all contribute to a sense of almost unbearable tension. I don't know how this is for people (the majority) who know the story.
About half way through, as you begin to realise how things will probably turn out, the film stops being a thriller, and becomes an exercise in dread: time contracts, and you hope the film goes on forever so that the intolerable denouement is postponed. It is unbearable. But after the film you begin to question the ethics of all this. One of the themes of the film is the media treatment of the crisis, the reprehensible desire of the Olympic Committee to get it out of the way as quickly as possible - one victim's wife accuses the media of turning the crisis into a 'show'. But this is precisely what Macdonald does, turning human tragedy into an entertainment by turns kinetic and visceral.
Other plusses are the revelations of shocking, farcical German incompetence, desperate to reveal deNazification by having no security whatsoever; the callous, indifferent face-saving here by representatives of the police is the film's true, sickening, achievement. The brief montages of the sporting events, the whole point of the Olympics, are exhilirating, soundtracked to an uplifting Moog Bach, making you wonder why people can't make better sports movies.
ONE DAY has been compared to Errol Morris's documentaries, and you can see, superficially, why - the Phillip Glass score, the distortion of footage and time, the letting authority hang itself. But Morris, in a film like THE THIN BLUE LINE, is concerned not so much with presenting a truth as destroying the official version, exposing its weaknesses, repressions, lies. His recreated scenes, heightened images, distancing effects, all point to the artificiality of the official 'truth'. Morris uses documenatary's claim to authenticity and truth, to expose the inauthenticity of 'truth'. His is a critical cinema.
MacDonald, however, IS offering official truth here - there is no real difference between what he says and the ABC news reporter. This is not a critical film, pandering to firmly entrenched ideologies. Further, the documentary as a genre is limited. It can tell us about facts, analyses. It can reveal witness. There is an astonishing frisson in being able to see these terrorists walking and talking on the big screen, that projection of fantasies, like people, not mythical constructs. But documentary can never get at people's inner lives, and as this is what real life really is, documentaries seem thin and superficial, a betrayal of life. And so, finally, ironically, the victims DO become abstract - simply that, victims. We know there is more to people than a handful of photographs and highly partial witness.
I remember the 1972 Olympics from a kid's perspective (with no TV set
at home). American swimmer Mark Spitz was its big star, everybody knew
him. It really was the most modern and most hip event ever planned in
Europe. The best architects and the best artists and designers of
Germany were employed to build an Olympic village that still reflects
the openness and optimism of the era. Even the logo, a kind of a spiral
made of rays, is unforgettable. (The original movie Rollerball was
largely filmed in the Olympic village).
One Day in September catches the atmosphere that preceded the terrorist attack perfectly, in that sense it is an accomplished exercise in style. I think there really was a kind of innocence connected with it, people truly believed that sports could be a means to bring enemies closer and that the Olympic area was regarded as something like a sacred ground which everyday worries couldn't penetrate. I assume that explains very much the clumsy reaction of the German authorities when they were faced with the act of desecration" that constituted the callous act of the Palestinian terrorists. (I think the German officials who were ready to be interviewed for this documentary are unduly criticized for what some call indifference. Must have been hard enough for them to reminisce about something terrible for which I believe they feel at least partly responsible).
The spirit of the Munich Olympics ended with that tragedy, and the Yom Kippur war the following year with the ensuing oil crisis changed the outlook on the future completely. Somehow I feel we still suffer from the shattered hopes of 1972. And where are the Palestinians now? Terrorism doesn't pay.
It would appear that many people believe that the documentary format
should be held to some sort of objective, news-gathering standard.
Whenever two clips are spliced together, regardless of the content
there is some editorializing. A documentary is an editorial. If you
want nothing more than unopinionated truth, than the only avenue open
to you is uninterrupted security camera footage. You can, and sometimes
should, disagree with the opinions offered by the documentary filmmaker
as a critical viewer, but one faulting the filmmaker for offering an
opinion is like criticizing water for being wet. The line that must be
discerned is whether the filmmaker is overly deceptive or insidious in
trying to convince you of his or her opinion. This is a line that can
be very difficult to draw.
Mr. Ruvi Simmons of London does not seem to realize these basic tenets of documentary film-making: "One Day in September, however, concentrates more on the human interest of the event itself, neglecting background information in order to convey a one-sided and grossly biased perspective on a tragic occurrence." I am a filmmaker, and I know that as such one must choose a theme and a perspective for a feature length documentary. The main problem that this person has with the film is that he is "that it neither explores the underlying issues behind the Israeli-Palestinian tensions." This is a 2 hour film, not a 40 hour mini-series. There is no way that the filmmaker could have adequately explored the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and still told the story that he or she intended: the story of the hostage crisis at the Games of '72. Mr. Simmons also took offense at the filmmaker for vilifying the terrorists who perpetrated this plot. I do not need to offer a critical retort as any logical person can understand why this statement is foolishness. It sounds as though Mr. Simmons feels as though the terrorists were justified in hurting innocent athletes a continent removed from their conflict. Obviously, this person would dislike this documentary (although he does not mention that the documentarian interviewed one of the terrorists to present his side of their story).
If you want to have a solid introduction to the acts of terrorism at the Games of '72, then this is a good work to watch. It is true that the thriller-style is a bit gimmicky, but it does add somewhat to the suspense if you do not know the outcome. If you are intending to see the film, "Munich," then this is probably a good primer (I have not yet seen it as it has not been released). Just remember, this film is just as much an editorial as Spielburg's film will be.
One of the most vivid memories of my youth was seeing Jim McKay in his
yellow blazer, announcing, "They're all gone" as news broke of the deaths
the Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972. I was a 10 year old who loved
sports and the Olympics -- it was the first time an international news
touched and upset me.
Watching "One Day in September" brought it all back. Any documentary about this horrific event is bound to upset and stir emotions, but this is wonderful filmmaking, including some blisteringly well-done editing and use of music of the day.
It is not easy viewing but it is well-worth the time and emotion you will spend. Don't miss this.
(Kevin MacDonald, 1999, 92 min.) Documentary about assassination of Israeli
athletes by Palestinian terrorists at 1972 Olympic games. Noteworthy for
exclusive interview with only surviving terrorist, who is in hiding
"somewhere in Africa." Composed of interviews with German authorities
involved in the episode, TV clips, etc, and narrated by Michael Douglas.
Interestingly, East Germans colluded with the terrorists, showing them around the Olympic village prior to the operation. Truth stranger than fiction. The ineptitude of the West Germans is astounding. Imagine paunchy German cops, clad in athletic sweats, trying to pass themselves off as Olympic athletes, their automatic weapons in plain sight, positioning themselves to launch a "surprise" attack on the apartment in which the hostages are being held while their every move is being televised worldwide; it's only at the very last minute, when they realize the terrorists too are watching them on TV, that they call the raid off. This is the only attempt they make to storm the apartment building.
Even after an Israeli's bullet-ridden naked body has been tossed out a window down to the sidewalk below, the games continue; the International Olympic Committee refuses to stop them; athletes are sunning themselves within sight of the hostage standoff; and, of course, the media has descended like a horde of flies ready to feast on a carcass. Israeli intelligence, the Mossad, offers to send a trained anti-terrorist unit, but the Germans, who have no such attack force of their own, who are in disarray, disorganized, and frankly at a loss as to what to do, refuse.
The terrorists are taken to a nearby airport in helicopters to a waiting jet. German cops, who are stationed in the jet and disguised as a flight crewm at the very last second, just as the helicopters are about to land, chicken out and abandon their posts. The head of Mossad, who by now has joined the Germans at the airport, is incredulous at the lack of professionalism of the whole ambush; also, he accuses the Germans of taking the hostages out of the Olympic village just so the games can continue. Sharp shooters positioned at the airport are not in radio communication with the outside or among themselves, have no idea of how many terrorists there are, and end up shooting each other and killing one of the helicopter pilots who has broken free. The coup de grace, the vilest insult to injury, comes in the aftermath of this debacle: Three Palestinian terrorists survive the gun battle at the airport and are taken into custody. Within days a nearly empty German airliner bound from Beirut to Frankfurt is hijacked by Arab terrorists who demand and obtain the release of the 3 terrorists in custody. One of these 3 later recounts how the whole thing was a setup: the German government colluded with the Arabs to stage the hijacking simply to rid themselves of the captured terrorists and to avoid the embarrassment of a trial.
I feel compelled to reply to the many people who say the documentary was completely biased toward Israelis. True, its focus was on the Israelis and their lives, and how they were killed by "evil" fundamentalist Palestinians. However, if you say the film is biased, then you're saying that maybe it should lean a little bit the other way, and tell more about the Palestinian terrorists and their personal plight in the conflict. But how can anyone be sympathetic to terrorists? The point has been brought up that both sides of the conflict experience terrorist attacks, so why should a filmmaker focus on one side more than the other; however, I think the fact that this attack took place at the Olympics, an event that represents the unity of the world and its people, is what makes the attack and this documentary so important. Therefore, Kevin MacDonald, in my opinion, has license to be as biased as he wants toward the Israelis, because they were the focus of this terrible event that occurred during a time that people around the world should have been united under the Olympics banner.
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