Wednesday, February 08, 2006

ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER - Skip MUNICH - watch this instead

MUNICH, about the moral and political implications of counter-terrorist missions. However, for those of us less well acquainted with recent history than we should be, MUNICH misses a step in telling us what actually happened at the 1972 Olympics. Kevin MacDonald's superb and Oscar-winning documentary, fills in that gap.

ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER is a straightforward retelling of the events of September 5th 1972. It combines TV footage and interviews with some of the key participants as well as relatives of the victims. We begin with the saccharine marketing for the Olympic games - the first held in Germany since the shameful Nazi Olympics of 1936, and a desperate attempt by the German nation to create a new, benign image in the eyes of the world. To these games came the Israeli team, one of whom had escaped the Holocaust by a whisker. One morning, Palestinian terrorists from an organisation later identified as Black September entered the Olympic Village with the help of the East German team and took 11 Israeli athletes hostage. A twelfth managed to run to freedom as the terrorists moved the hostages into one room. The terrorists' ostensible aim was to have over 200 Palestinian prisoners in various countries freed, but the real aim was to publicise their cause. Golda Meir, the Israeli Prime Minister refused to negotiate with the terrorists, and as deadlines ticked by, the terrorists, who had already killed two men, asked for an airplane to take them and their hostages away. The Germans planned an assualt at the airport but through a mixture of inexperience, bureaucratic wrangling and pure cowardice, failed. It ended in a shoot-out and all the hostages were killed.

No-one comes out of this documentary looking good except for the Israelis. Golda Meir, unable to send in a Mossad team, is only on-screen for a few brief moments, but the then-head of Mossad, who flew to Munich and was a horrified and frustrated on-looker gives some terrible testimony to the incompetence of the Germans. The lack of experience one can forgive, but the sheer idiocy of the planning is pathetic. Worst of all, the individual cowardice of some of the men who abandoned their posts is nauseating. But by far the most serious charge levelled at the Germans by this documentary is that the government staged the hijacking of a Lufthansa flight in order to have an excuse to hand over the troublesome surviving three terrorists. If true, this is heinous. Finally, and obviously, the terrorists receive no sympathy. It is galling to see their bodies receiving a heroes welcome on return to Libya, and to see the sole survivor - interviewed for the first time in this documentary - declaring how proud he still is for his part in the atrocity.

I found ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER to be the perfect substitute for the highly flawed and, indeed, over-rated MUNICH. To see the smiling, proud face of the real terrorist in the former allows us to question whether we would have acted as Golda Meir in the latter. How far was the retribution justified? Moreover, MacDonald's documentary, running at just 90 minutes, raises far more questions about the world in which we live. The Munich games continued for 6 hours after the hostages were taken, and resumed after the crisis ended. Would the same be true today? Were the IOC callous, or did they believe that they should not bow to terror? I suspect the former, but it is a good question. The documentary also questions how far the media cynically create a "show" from tragic events. All in all, for a less sentimental but highly emotional, and by far more intelligent account of the events and issues raised by the terrorist attack on the 1972 Munich Olympics, please rent ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER. I highly recommend this documentary.

ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER went on brief cinematic release in the US in 2000/2001. Since then it has aired on TV in many countries and was released on Region 2 DVD to coincide with the cinematic release of MUNICH.
In his review, Roger Ebert posits that ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER only won its Oscar because of shenanigans by the Producer. To quote from the review, "Cohn exhibits his Oscar entries at screenings peopled largely by those on his invitation list and to as few other people as possible. Under the academy bylaws, only those who have seen all five nominated docs can vote, and by limiting those who have seen his, Cohn shrinks the voting pool and improves his odds." If so, then that is pretty dicey behaviour. However, let's not take away from the fact that this IS a great picture and worthy of the Oscar award whatever the voting shenanigans may have been.

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