By Admin | February 18, 2001

The tragedy has been reduced, over a quarter of a century later, to an emotionless statistic and one or two instantly recognizable images: Eleven Isræli Olympic athletes killed; the hooded Palestinian gunman prowling the hotel balcony; a team picture of the Isræli Olympic delegation. With so many new tragedies, triumphs, and historic events happening daily, such distillation and cataloguing of our history is the only way we humans manage to keep track of our past. It’s better than nothing. But sometimes, the world needs to re-examine some of these past events in greater depth, to click on an instantly recognizable icon and delve back into its details. That’s what makes films like the haunting and chilling “One Day in September” as necessary as it is powerful.
For the historically challenged, director Michæl MacDonald’s film looks back on the September day at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games when eight Palestinian terrorists from the “Black September” organization kidnapped eleven members of the Isræli Olympic Team. The gunmen killed two of their hostages early on in their “action.” The other nine died in the botched rescue attempt ordered by a German government more concerned with bad P.R. than the safety of the athletes and carried out by an un-trained and disorganized German police force.
This 2000 Academy Award Winner for Best Documentary combines interviews, news footage, ABC Sports video clips, computer diagrams and still photos to break down the event as it unfolded; a process that reveals the multitude of ironies and “what-ifs” that abounded. The touching interviews with the victims’ surviving teammates, spouses, and children put a human face on the tragedy, reminding the viewer that the loss of life represented by those cold statistics is still being felt today.
Other interviews with principle participants in the tragedy, such as German policemen, politicians, and the newsmen who covered the crisis, flesh out the details of what all went wrong on that awful day.
The major coup, however, is the interview with Jamal Al Gashey, the unrepentant, only surviving terrorist. His blow-by-blow account provides the viewer with a previously unknown perspective, not only into the crisis itself, but the mindset of those responsible for igniting it. (The film notes that two other terrorists survived the shoot-out and have since been gunned down by Isræli assassins. The disgusting revelation here of how these three thugs gained their freedom would have undoubtedly shattered Isræli-German relations had the details become known at the time.)
Michæl Douglas does a fine job narrating this film; supplementing the gaps between the interviews and news coverage. His voice fairly drips with sarcasm as he fleshes out the details of the ill-conceived and horribly executed “rescue.”
The most brutally shocking, and sure to be most controversial aspect of this film is MacDonald’s decision to include grisly photos of the dead victims. When you consider that one of the two helicopters in which the hostages were being held at the airport was blown up by a hand grenade and the other sprayed repeatedly with machine gun fire, these gruesome pictures are not pleasant to look at. They are, however, utterly necessary to drive home the point of what happened to these otherwise anonymous “eleven Isræli Olympic athletes killed.”
ABC Sports anchorman Jim McKay’s poignantly helpless summation, “They’re all gone,” rips at the heart to this day with its seeming incomprehension of the loss. The somber “One Day in September” echoes that pain just as the prejudice and hatreds that inspired the tragedy echo around the Middle East to this day.

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  1. Susu says:

    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.

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