One Day in September (1999)

D: Kevin MacDonald

Gripping documentary charting the tragic events at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games where eleven members of the Israeli team were murdered by Palestinian terrorists. At its best when detailing the whats and whens of the situation, but unashamedly manipulative and one-sided when it touches on the whys, director Kevin MacDonald's film had the distinction of winning an Oscar for best documentary feature over Wim Wenders' highly-favoured Buena Vista Social Club despite at that time being barely on release. This decision may have been partly prompted by the political resonances of the story itself rather than the inherent quality of the film.

There is no doubt that this is an emotionally charged subject, and the film does attempt to touch on some of the political resonances which both informed and were informed by the event. Yet there is a persistent snideness in the film's attitude towards the German authorities and a careful lack of presentation of the Palestinian point of view despite featuring an interview with Jami al Gahsey, the only surviving member of the group who carried out the attack (which has already been the centre of controversy as relatives of the families have objected to him having his say).

It begins and concludes with the story of murdered Israeli fencer Andre Spitzer, which seems to be intended to provide a human context to the action. Paradoxically, this becomes a distraction because despite the personal input from his surviving wife and child, with whom it is impossible not to empathise, one wonders just why he above all others on the team was singled out in this way. This was undoubtedly a horrible moment in recent human history for many reasons, and it is right that any documentary should acknowledge and pay tribute to the real stories of real people which are at its centre. Yet the focus on this single individual does not so much exemplify the human dimension of the story as it reinforces several of the film's ideological conceits and contributes to a feeling that the viewer is being manipulated.

The complex nexus of ideologies and political viewpoints crystallised by the events of September 1972 almost defies coherent documentary representation. It is difficult for any filmmaker to attempt to present all sides of this situation without angering someone along the way, and with the tragedy most definitely weighted to favour the Israelis, it is they who come out of the film as the most blameless. This is despite the fleeting suggestion by one German interviewee that the Israeli Government would have sacrificed the lives of their athletes in order to stand by its principles of no compromise, countered by the bitter assertion by an Israeli interviewee that the German authorities banned a potential Mossad counter-strike for similar reasons. The political background to the terrorists' demands is never explored. The operation is portrayed as a violent publicity stunt (confirmed by al Gahsey), though for what is not really explained (some brief introduction to al Gahsey's childhood experiences as a refugee is all we get to guide us). The deeper questions about the role of ideology in the Olympics in general is only hinted at, with fleeting reference to Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia and rather gushing references to the peace and harmony that the event supposedly epitomises (a naive, ideologically loaded interpretation which is really used by the various broadcasters to create a dramatic counterpoint to the tragic events). The theme of media manipulation itself is also only touched on, though granted, mentioning it at all means that audiences have at least some chance to question the ethics of both the contemporary coverage and the film itself if they are attentive enough.

Stylistically, the film is a mishmash of successful techniques used in other documentary films. Its dramatic opening credits and extremely, suspiciously, eclectic soundtrack mix of songs, scoring, and clips from other soundtracks even makes it feel like a fiction film from time to time. An impressive range of clips, stills, and computer graphics are used in conjunction with a short voice-over from Michael Douglas, but the film is mostly narrated by interviewees and clips from contemporary television news reportage. There is a brief split-screen sequence which seems like something out of Woodstock, and the film uses a head-on interview style throughout which is identifiably informed by the work of Errol Morris (Mr. Death). The link with Morris is made even more explicit by the presence of soundtrack excerpts from the work of composer Philip Glass. The opening is even reminiscent of The Full Monty, with its ironic use of a cheerful tourist film promoting Munich before the games which is then counterpointed by the observations of interviewees on the horror that is to follow.

The film's main strengths are in its breakdown and reconstruction of the incident at its core. As a piece of documentary narrative, it is engrossing. Of course one wonders how closely this links it with more conventional action-adventure films and docudramas (given the subject matter, the numerous movies and TV movies out of the Entebee incident spring to mind), and raises the uncomfortable question of whether it is the morbid excitement of suspense and violence which is really the most compelling element. This becomes even more pronounced when it becomes obvious that the story of Andre Spitzer is itself fraught with problems on a political level (his devotion to Olympic ideals, family, and country martyrs him as a symbol of Israeli righteousness rather than makes him more identifiably human). Thus the film's ability to delve beneath and beyond the facts is limited. This, coupled with the aforementioned all-too-fleeting consideration given to questions of ideology, politics, and media manipulation means that the film is ultimately only effective as narrative. This can't be right, not given the richness of the subject matter and the multiple points of view which it tantalisingly touches on but never really represents.

All of that said, One Day in September is certainly worth seeing. In bringing to light the details of this atrocity with a wealth of original and archive footage, MacDonald has done history some service. It is the kind of film which demands to be viewed and discussed, although perhaps the discussion is more important than the viewing given the gaps and unexplored avenues which the film leaves. In many ways the film reminds us of our social responsibilities, and is an effective portrait of the complexities of dealing with groups of people on a Governmental or representative level (although, as noted, it does tend to suggest that the Germans were merely incompetent) when politics and ideology are involved. It is also an illustration of the difficulties faced by a documentary filmmaker attempting to tackle this subject though, and this, finally, proves its undoing.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.