by james macgregor |
One Day In September
Kevin Macdonalds Oscar-winning documentary feature made its television debut on BBC2 this week. James MacGregor tuned in.
| | From tasteful tourist shots of an opening in a Munich of lederhosen, hoppy beer and oompah bands, the film gets into an Olympic stride and picks up pace with contemporary sports footage of the 1972 Munich Games. "Best of" compilations, the sort that delight us all at the end of that days TV coverage, create the screen excitement. The Olympics is show-biz as much as sport. The film mirrors the event and hypes up the action with a contemporary sound track pumping through the pop music catalogue of the period, achieving an up-front in-your-face feel to the narrative, bold, brazen, buzzing. An exciting place to be, but not for some athletes.Meanwhile, dark forces are at work. Palestinian terrorists plan to make use of the world attention the Olympic Games demands, by kidnapping the Israeli national team and holding them to ransom in exchange for the release of 200 Arab political prisoners held in Israel. Unbelievably, there was no special security in place. A SWAT-type operation is hastily set up to try to liberate the hostages.G-men dressed to look like athletes are seen skulking around the roofs of the Olympic Village with sub-machine guns tucked under their oxter. This is all captured on camera for the world and relayed by German domestic TV transmitters to the terrorists inside the TV-equipped rooms of the Olympic village.Just as well no one fired. It might have been hard to tell if it was an opening shot or an answering one that came first.Things went wrong, badly wrong, but it is perhaps only possible to judge how awful it was and how public it was, thirty years after a tragedy that cost so many lives.Macdonald set out to make a thriller of a documentary, arguing that to get people into the cinema to see a story like this it has to be hyped, pumped and pushed in your face.Hes right. A documentary about a terrorist atrocity doesnt readily grab most people, but if it gets you in front of the screen, this one will.If theres one element missing from the account it is perhaps the Palestine dimension.The word Palestinian was, and is still, to some extent, synonymous with Terrorist, but the world has shifted its perspective slightly and theres a legitimacy attached to Palestinians now that could not be contemplated in 1972. So there is no exploration of the whys of terror, only the hows. Perhaps more could have been revealed through the interview with Jamal Al Gashey, last survivor of the Palestinian group, but since he lives under permanent threat of assassination, just achieving an interview with him was something of a world scoop.Watching the film on television, there was that feeling of peering into a television screen to discover something of a surreal world, whereas the effect on the big screen is entirely different. There in the cinema, you are not an onlooker, but someone pitched right in to the action. See it on TV if you must, but see it in the cinema if you can.This film will leave you numbed and exhausted and uncomprehending.It has my Oscar vote too.
There are some events that you look forward to with anticipation and some you can never imagine happening. This film performs well on both counts, as a film and as a document, a snapshot across time that shows what held the worlds breath bated, while the terrorist games were played out and the Olympic games played on. The tragic irony is, that whilst both sets of games were in deadly earnest, one was horribly fatal.