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Original at San Jose Mercury
An Olympian tragedy
Documentary Seeks the Truth Behind Botched Hostage Rescue
By Sura Wood
Special to the Mercury News
On Sept. 5, 1972, the idealism and harmony of the Munich Olympic Games were shattered when Black September, a Palestinian guerrilla group, took 11 Israeli athletes hostage. After nearly 21 hours of fruitless negotiation, the hostages were taken to the airport where they died in a botched rescue attempt. The Palestinians made it home - - where all but one eventually were gunned down by Israeli assassins.
"One Day in September" is a briskly paced documentary recounting machinations behind the scenes of this infamous event, portraying it as a collision of political expediency, media frenzy and keystone cops ineptitude.
"What fascinated me was that there were all sorts of inconsistencies in the stories" of what actually occurred that day "and clearly there were people who had never talked about it," says director Kevin Macdonald. "I became obsessed with piecing together what really happened."
He unearthed images of carnage, blurry photographs that reveal both the absurdity and the stark cruelty of the incident that hadn't been seen by the public.
Macdonald says that "through the backdoor," he also obtained the transcript of an internal investigation by the Germans, who had agreed to supply the kidnappers with a plane in an effort to buy time. Macdonald says the report includes interviews with about 150 key people and embarrassing facts about the bloody shootout at the airport. According to the film, the episode was so grossly mishandled by German authorities that it would have been laughable if the results had not been so tragic.
Macdonald is the 33-year-old brother of "Trainspotting" producer Andrew Macdonald and the grandson of writer/director Emeric Pressburger, who collaborated with Michael Powell on "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" in 1943 and "The Red Shoes" in 1948. Educated at Oxford, he lives in London.
He found that the story lent itself well to the cinematic experience. "Apart from everything else, it's a remarkable and fascinating story with so much built-in tension," he says. "It works as thriller because it's a fight against the clock, and the audience is on the edge of their seats, just as people were when they watched the event at the time."
In something of a coup, Macdonald scored an interview with Jamal Al Gashey, the only surviving kidnapper, who reveals, among other details, that a group of American athletes, returning after a drunken night out, inadvertently helped the Black September team a wall and gain entry to the Olympic village.
Macdonald and his producer, John Battsek, located Al Gashey through a middle-man and spoke with him at an undisclosed location. Al Gashey, who appears in disguise, lives in hiding somewhere in Africa and, according to the filmmaker, fears for his life. "He was deeply paranoid and found it very difficult talking publicly about what he had done," Macdonald remembers.
"With frequent diversions, tantrums and non sequiturs, it took almost eight hours to record 30 minutes of viable material. I think he must have wanted to explain himself. This was a single day that impacted the rest of his life, a day that has defined his existence, and he's a prisoner in his own home because of it."
Al Gashey wasn't the only one reluctant to talk. Even 30 years after the fact, many of the participants, especially German officials, were equally reticent. But, Macdonald, who spent nearly three years researching the film, is clearly as persistent as he is persuasive.
He lobbied former Interior Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher for two years before he consented to an interview, the first he has granted to the press; Zvi Zamir, the former chief of Mossad, the Israeli service, also makes his maiden appearance in front of Macdonald's camera.
"There has been, without doubt, a conspiracy of silence over this," Macdonald says. "It's obvious when you watch our film the reason why people didn't want to talk about it."
The film shows that when the kidnappers arrived in Libya they were treated as conquering heroes. But had they succeeded in their mission, which was to not only obtain the release of political prisoners being held by Israel, but also to gain the world's sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians?
"In one quite isolated sense, it was a success in that it created an enormous amount of publicity for the Palestinian cause," says Macdonald. "But, in general, it was a hugely negative event for the Palestinian people as a whole because it was probably the key event which planted in people's minds, particularly in the U.S., the notion that there was no difference between the word `Palestinian' and the word `terrorist.' "
One Day in September
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes