In the summer of 1976, an Air France jet traveling from Tel Aviv to Paris was taken over by four terrorists; two Palestinian and two German radicals. The plane is delivered to Uganda, where 248 passengers (mostly Israelis) were held hostage waiting for Israel’s leadership to either negotiate their release or stage a rescue. 7 Days In Entebbe tells the story of the seven days from the perspective of the hostages, hijackers, and Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Film Threat spoke with the film’s director José Padilha.
Why tell this story and why tell it today?
José Padilha: This project was first developed by Working Title Films and the producers. They sent me a screenplay, but I actually knew a lot about Operation Thunderbolt, because I had been making movies about military operations with Elite Squad in Brazil and with Narcos. I was Special Ops members, and they would always talk about this specific operation as the most famous military operations of all time.
When I was approached about the film, I knew there had already been movies made about it from the military perspective. The screenplay was very interesting because they were telling the story of the hijackers and how they interacted with the hostages. It also looked behind the scenes at the political dynamic between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and defense minister Shimon Peres. They showed how difficult it was to consider negotiating in Israel, giving how unpopular negotiations with the voters.
When I read the script, I asked the producer where he got the information. He introduced me to a scholar in England and Israel. It turns out this knowledge was accurate. I went to Israel to interview a lot of people, who were there, hostages, flight crew, and the soldiers who broke into the terminal. I just wanted to check if the information in the book was precise. It turned out to be. I said that’s a very interesting thing because we’re reading a different story to a very iconic event that is politically charged in Israel because Yoni Netanyahu, who was a true hero, died there and left his brother who eventually became the Prime Minister.
“…telling the story of the hijackers and how they interacted with the hostages.”
Thinking about that time in the 70’s, this is one of the first acts of modern terrorism. Just seeing the different perspectives of the different players back then had compared to what we do and don’t know about what’s happening today.
It was important to look at Rabin because you see his constraints. You understand why there’s never an agreement between Israel and Palestine. The politicians in both Israel and Palestine got elected saying, “I’m going to protect you from the enemy” or at least the right wing. Once they do that, it’s very hard to go back into negotiations on both sides. By looking at Rabin, you understand that when Rabin thought lots of people are going to die, he still said let’s send the military.
When you look at the terrorists, you see under the umbrella of terrorism, the Germans (Böse and Kuhlmann) and the Palestinians had different psychological motivation. They’re all the same when they decide to do something so stupid and violent, but their motivations were not the same.
If you look at the Palestinians, they were there because they were in the context of a war. They have had friends and family killed by Israel soldiers. They have lost territory and their homes. So they decided that they were entitled to do anything in the context of this war.
It’s completely different for the Germans. They were there because of ideology. It wasn’t personal. It was, we are doing it for Marxism. These people have different motivations for their terrorist acts. I think it’s important to understand, so we can be prepared to deal with terrorism better today.
Böse, in particular, I think, a lot of the success of this operation was actually due to the hostages. The hostages understood that those terrorists had different motivations. They understood Böse’s weakness, and they got into his head by accusing him of being a Nazi. At the last second, he just couldn’t get himself to shoot the hostages. I think he understood how horrible this would be for his own cause, like a German killing Jews. He hated that.
The hostages were really smart, and I thought we should show that. Even though I knew that terrorism is taboo and the idea that terrorist has a psychological dimension that can be explored against them is not an easy idea to portray in a movie. I thought it was important to do it.
“…they can’t use that power in negotiations, because they lose their voters.”
I found intriguing how pervasive politics played in everyone’s viewpoints. These hostages were pawns in an ultimate scheme. All the decisions were like a chess game. What is next move going to be, as opposed to how do we save lives?
It’s all politics actually. Well not all, because both the terrorists and Rabin each had legitimate policy issues. The idea that, If we negotiate, what happens in the future? That’s a real policy issue. Consider when Rabin decided to negotiate a peace agreement between Palestine and Israel, and he was then murdered in Israel. It was a political assassination. In a certain sense, leaders like Arafat couldn’t negotiate. In Camp David, he got many proposals of peace from the Israelis that were a road map to peace. He just didn’t negotiate and why? If he negotiated, he’d be killed too.
It’s very interesting because these people get to the position of power they have like Bibi by saying, “I’m going to protect you from the enemy.” That’s what got you elected. Very similar to America today when Donald Trump is going to protect America from the Mexicans, or whomever. These people get to power, and once they get into this position of power, they can’t use that power in negotiations, because they lose their voters. That’s the dominant message in 7 Days in Entebbe, and it plays out in Israel. It even plays out this way in America now.
“…people only look at the drama…and the conflict…They don’t see the beauty of Israel.”
The modern dance aspect of the film. I have no real understanding or long-time appreciation of modern dance. What was the thought behind adding that?
It’s two thoughts actually. One was because I love Israeli culture. The culture has beautiful things, and I think people just don’t see it. People only look at the drama and the tragedy and the conflict in the history of Israel. They don’t see the beauty that’s produced out of Israel. I knew this particular dance from my childhood. I wanted to show something beautiful that’s not military. I want people to get that Israel is bigger than that.
Second, I wanted to show the self-criticism of Israelis. The beautiful chair dance from “Echad Mi Yodea” has its dancers dressed in orthodox clothes. As the dance starts, they are singing a Passover song. They start to undress themselves of the orthodox clothes, get rid of their orthodoxy metaphorically. The only dancer who doesn’t do that keeps falling from the chair, falling from the chair, falling from the chair. So, the dance is a metaphorical criticism of extreme orthodoxy that will never solve Israel’s problems if people abide by it. Done by Israeli themselves in a beautiful way, I thought that was a perfect commentary in a movie. It’s visual, and it’s cinematic. I don’t have to say anything. People will get it, and in Israel, everybody knows this dance, so they will have the context for it. That was their idea.
Then the choice to play it along with the actual operational aspect of the film?
That’s a cinematic choice. I think you see the beauty and the drama and the tragedy playing back to back. That’s Israeli in a nutshell for me. The beautiful culture alongside the violent conflicts through history is what the dance symbolizes. My mother is Jewish. I do know a little about Israel, and I thought it was a way to express how I feel about Israel.