Dir. Kevin MacDonald, Switzerland/Germany/UK, 1999, 94 mins
Cast: Michael Douglas (Narrator)
There will be no better time to revisit Kevin Macdonald’s compelling Oscar winning documentary. With the imminent arrival of Steven Spielberg’s critically acclaimed Munich and the current climate of warring terrorist factions being a constant fixture on CNN, the impact delivers more resonance now than it did upon its initial release.
The movie chronicles the events of September 5th 1972 when during the Munich Olympics a Palestinian terrorist group called Black September kidnapped Israeli athletes and demanded the release of hundreds of Arab prisoners. In a tragic turn of events all of the hostages, some of the police and most of the terrorist group lost their lives.
What makes this a superior documentary is the way in which the filmmaker investigates the events leading up the horror with meticulous intensity to detail. Highlighting the obvious shortcomings of both government and Olympic officials that were the catalyst for the bungled rescue missions and half-hearted negotiations.
The most shocking revelations relate to the incompetence of the aforementioned governing powers. In an attempt to atone for their previous sins at the 1936 Olympics where the Nazi regime notoriously used the games as a propaganda tool, the Germans employed unarmed guards to portray a friendly welcome, a tactic that the terrorists benefited from. The controversy of the refusal to halt the games was also a mistake on a moral level, as while the hostages suffered with their lives in the balance at the Olympic village, not far away athletes were competing for medals. The unforced contrast is powerfully effective but that is Macdonald’s strength, the film retains a strong impact even though you know the outcome purely by presenting the facts to us.
One Day In September’s trump card is undoubtedly the interview with the only surviving member of the terrorist group, Jamel Al Gashey. Victims families are given the chance to provide a moving testimony but by not falling into the biased documentary trap of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, Macdonald includes this insightful interview in respect to the audience’s ability to make up their own mind. What Al Gashey has to say never condones the acts but makes them more understandable.
A film that focuses on the out of control elements of a terrible tragedy is one that is so in control of the facts its presents that it adds to the shocking realisation of a forgotten event. The event only makes up approximately fifteen minutes of Spielberg’s upcoming account of the revenge mission but as a precursor to watching that it helps to ground the film in context. As a documentary it’s a benchmark that others have since strived to reach.
In the summer of 1972 the Germans held the Olympic Games for the first time since 1936. It was heralded as the ‘Olympics of Serenity’ and was used to quash any ideas the world still possessed about Germany. On 5th September, during these games, a Palestinian extremist group broke into the Munich Olympic village, took hostage 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team and subsequently killed them.
One Day in September is a documentary which charts these events from the moment the Palestinian’s broke into the village, following it through to its ultimate end at a Munich airport. By use of much archive footage and interviews, the documentary is brought together with intelligent editing and the grating narrative voice of Michael Douglas.
A well-thought out film, One Day in September tells an intricate and dramatic story. However, the drama does not arise from the hostage taking itself, but more so from the mistreatment of the situation by those in government. The film spurs a kind of anger at the powers that be. But as it is unclear where the anger should be aimed, what the audience is left with is a feeling of insecurity. An insecurity which springs from the feeling that, if you were in the same situation, would anyone be able to save you?
Ultimately the film’s (shocking) value is based on the viewer’s own ability to read the imagery, which has been cleverly edited. Images are juxtaposed and it is up to the audience to make the connection and derive meaning. Footage of Andre Spitzer’s (a hostage) wedding day is edited alongside the still images of the final death scene, which gives a powerfully harrowing image which is not easy to forget. Unfortunately the film also falters through its editing. The overuse of archival Olympic game footage clouds over the story of the hostages for much of the film, disassociating the audience from the main story. However, this may have been purposefully done, to emphasise the feeling at the time. Interviews show news reporters displaying their disgust at how the games were allowed to continue on the morning of the hostage taking, a feeling which travels through to the audience when images of athletes in gaudy tracksuits are put in place of footage of the hostage taking.
One Day in September’s major success comes from its ability to deliver chilling imagery while the audience are unaware. Images of one terrorist stalking the balcony are particularly eerie, as is the powerfully saddening final montage. The everlasting feeling you’re left with after the film has ended is derived from the interviews with children of the hostages who, now adults, talk about the fathers they never knew. And it leads you to think, why these men? Why did 11 men in the peak of human strength die? Why, at an international event, did no country use the resources to help them? This is something the film attempts to explain, why, when everything could have done, does it feel as if everybody did nothing?
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