November 19, 2018

Remembering ‘One day in September’

Just after Kevin Macdonald won the 2000 Academy Award for his searing documentary, “One Day in September,” an expose on the Munich Olympics massacre of 11 Israeli athletes, I spoke to him for two hours by phone from his home in the UK about the controversial film and how he got the story — including an interview with one of the terrorists — which unspools like a John le Carre novel.  On this, the 40th anniversary year of the Munich tragedy, I've reprinted my piece, originally published on Sept. 7, 2000:  below: 


Kevin Macdonald never expected his documentary “One Day in September” to win the 2000 Academy Award. Wim Wenders' “Buena Vista Social Club” was the docu favorite, while “September” already had raised eyebrows.

An exposé of the 1972 Munich Olympic Games massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by members of the Palestinian group Black September, the movie answers questions that have puzzled investigators for decades. But even before the stunning, suspenseful film was widely viewed, it was controversial.

Some Israelis were disturbed that “September” included the Palestinian point of view, courtesy of the sole surviving terrorist, whom Macdonald had tracked down in hiding.

The director says his film also angered the Germans, who are accused of bumbling incompetence during the hostage crisis. When the Palestinians and their captives fled the Olympic Village for the airport, the movie asserts, no one bothered to warn the authorities there were eight terrorists instead of the presumed five. No one called ahead for armored cars as the terrorists raced toward their jet to Libya. The Germans mustered only five sharpshooters, none of them in radio contact with each other. And at the last minute, the policemen – disguised as crew members aboard the jet – voted the plan “too dangerous” and aborted the mission.

No wonder some Germans saw red. “One Day in September” was turned down by German distributors and attacked in the German media, according to Variety. And Macdonald, for one, was “shocked” when the film was rejected by the Berlin Film Festival. “Not only did they turn it down, they hated it,” he says. “They made it clear… they were appalled by the film and found it unfair. We were so devastated,” he adds.Nevertheless, he stands by his research, which he says was gleaned from high-ranking officials and internal police documents, among other sources. “Some people say I've made an anti-German film, but I didn't set out to do that,” he insists. “I set out to make a film about a terrorist attack. But the facts speak for themselves.”

At first glance, Macdonald, who is in his early 30's, seems an unlikely filmmaker to attempt a movie on the Israeli tragedy. He was only 4 during the 1972 Olympics, after all. And he was raised on a sheep farm in the Scottish countryside, in a community virtually devoid of Jews.

Then again, his grandfather was the Hungarian-born Jewish screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, who created legendary British pictures such as “The Red Shoes” with collaborator Michael Powell. “I knew he fled the Nazis,” Macdonald says. “I knew I had cousins in Israel. And I was well aware that I had Jewish blood while growing up in my small, rural community.”

Pressburger, a small, shy, retiring figure, was fascinating to the young Macdonald, who viewed him as “a slightly enigmatic, exotic character.” The boy listened raptly as he spoke of living as a tramp in 1920s Berlin, where he slept in the park and wrote his first short stories on forms in the post office.

Macdonald still has the Nazi letter Pressburger received from a large German studio stating that the company could no longer employ Jews. The day after a colleague warned him he was to be arrested, “my grand-father packed one bag, left his key in his apartment door and took the train to Paris,” Macdonald says.

But even in the U.K., the director asserts, Pressburger never felt quite at home. Macdonald believes residual British xenophobia is the reason Powell remains better known in England than his grandfather.Upon his grandfather's death in 1988, the Oxford graduate vowed to write a book about him. The well-received tome led to documentaries on filmmakers such as Howard Hawks, the majority of them for television.

But by 1997, Macdonald says, he had wearied of directing TV documentaries. He longed to make a cinematic docu that would push the boundaries of the form, a movie that felt more like a thriller than “60 Minutes.” He had a vague concept – something about Israel and terrorism in the 1970s; when a producer friend suggested the Munich massacre, Macdonald jumped at the idea. Of course, his investigative journalism experience was nil, he admits. “I had to learn by doing, and it was very, very tough,” he says. “People weren't talking to us and everyone was closing down. I despaired a lot. There were times I would have given up if I could.”

While the victims' relatives were eager to talk, Zvi Zamir, then head of the Mossad, refused an interview for eight months, relenting only when producer Arthur Cohn (“Central Station”) met with him personally.Dr. Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the former German interior minister who offered himself as a hostage in exchange for the Israelis, granted a 10-minute interview three days before the film was completed. A crew member on the aborted airport mission agreed to talk only if he were paid, Macdonald says.

Then there was Brigadier General Ulrich Wegener, Germany's anti-terrorism guru, who was surprisingly frank and open but “oddly nervous,” the director recalls. Wegener laughs inappropriately and tells tasteless jokes on camera about the gun battle with the terrorists. He also indicates that Germany staged a fake hijacking to free the three surviving terrorists, ostensibly to assure German immunity from Arab terrorism.”He was a key person,” Macdonald notes. “I knew if we had him in the movie, being critical, no one could refute what was said.” Since the interview, however, Wegener has told German journalists that the filmmakers misunderstood him, the director says.

Macdonald's greatest coup was tracking down the sole surviving terrorist, Jamal al-Gashey, who was a junior member of the Black September team. In the movie, he appears in an archival clip wearing a striped jacket and guarding a door on a first-floor balcony.

The Mossad managed to kill his two surviving colleagues; there had been many attempts on his life, but al-Gashey was still alive and living with his wife and two daughters somewhere in Africa. Macdonald finally contacted him through “a strange kind of 'Six Degrees of Separation,' ” specifically through a Palestinian man who had befriended al-Gashey growing up in a refugee camp.

The interview was on again, off again. Just as Macdonald was about to board an airplane for an unknown destination in the Middle East, he would learn that al-Gashey had canceled yet again.

Finally, he found himself in a hotel room somewhere in the Arab world in April 1999, awaiting instructions. He had been ordered to bring a wig-and-mustache disguise for the terrorist to wear on camera. But he did not know his destination until al-Gashey's friend appeared and drove him to a small television studio.

Over the next six hours, al-Gashey spoke in fits and starts, sometimes angrily leaving the room or shouting and arguing with his friend, who conducted the interview. “He was extremely worried and paranoid,” recalls Macdonald, who wasn't allowed to ask any questions. “After struggling for so long to keep quiet, I think he got irrationally upset and irritated when confronted with the camera.”

Macdonald, who wasn't permitted to leave or make telephone calls, didn't know what al-Gashey had said until he returned to London and hired a translator.

“Emotionally, it was a very strange thing to be sitting in a room with this terrorist,” the director says. “But I felt strongly that I did not want to demonize him. I wanted to present him as human being who did what he did for compelling reasons. Whether we agree with him or not is another matter.”