Munich: the truth behind the cover-up

Kevin Macdonald had to fight all the way to make his Oscar-winning documentary about the 1972 Olympic massacre. As he tells Geoffrey Macnab, the fight's not over
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The Independent Culture

Start with a few stock images of the Munich Olympics: Mark Spitz splashing his way to seven gold medals in the pool, Russia's Valeriy Borzov beating the Americans in the sprints, Mary Peters looking as bashful as a Belfast housewife on the winners' podium, the 14-year-old Olga Korbut tumbling gracefully across the gym floor or tiptoeing along the balance beam.

These are the faces which feature again and again whenever the 1972 Games are invoked. It is curious, though, how often the killing of 11 Israeli athletes by Black September terrorists is edited out. We're enjoined to concentrate on the sport instead.

"Munich didn't register with me at all," claims 32-year-old Scottish film-maker, Kevin Macdonald. "I knew the Israelis had died, but I didn't know any more than that. I think most people don't. Older people have vague recollections, but they don't remember the details - the cock-up." He unravels the story of the massacre in his new film, One Day In September (which pipped The Buena Vista Social Club to the Best Documentary Oscar at the ceremony earlier this week).

It's an extraordinary, very morbid tale of callousness and incompetence; of bungled rescue attempts and political horse-trading, all played out in the glare of the media. In a macabre way, the siege is almost comic. The terrorists (second-generation Palestinians) are alerted to an imminent police raid by turning on the TV, which is broadcasting images of overweight officers clambering on the roof above them.

While the Israeli hostages suffer, fellow athletes are basking in the sun, playing table-tennis a few hundred yards away. There is a media circus. Camera crews and journalists are parked in the Olympic Village in their thousands, watching matters unfold. The clock is ticking down. There's an air of unreality. Then, as if to jolt us out of our complacency, we're shown a horrific image of a dead athlete, the back of his legs caked in excrement and blood.

"I wanted to bring people up short with the reality of this," Macdonald says. "I didn't want to glamorise what was going on. You had to see the consequences of what was happening. I wanted people to be angry and shocked. There's a strange creepiness about the Olympics," he continues carefully, "at the 1936 Games, there were clear premonitions of the violence to come. Some 36 years later, the (Olympic) ideal was sullied by a different kind of violence."

Macdonald isn't the first to make a film about the massacre. In 1976, William Holden starred in the woeful 21 Hours In Munich, as a strutting, heroic police chief, pitting his wits against fiendish terrorists. This was precisely the stereotyping that Macdonald wanted to avoid. In One Day In September, alongside the security chiefs, politicians and relatives of the victims, he interviews Jamal Al-Gashey, the one surviving Black September terrorist from the Munich mission.

"We didn't want to say, here are nasty terrorists, faces in black, here are lovely Israeli people, don't you feel terribly sorry for them. You do feel terribly sorry for the Israelis - I hope you do, the movie is meant to feel emotional - but at the same time, I hope you understand this man had his reasons. We do try to let him have the opportunity to explain those reasons."

While researching the film, Macdonald visited the refugee camp where Jamal grew up and met the families of the terrorists. The conditions in which they lived shocked him. "They can't work. The Lebanese government won't allow them to work. They're reliant on friends and relations who've managed to get out of the country and go to the West to earn money and send it back. These people have been in the camps sometimes since 1948. You can see why there's a desperation."

Tracking Jamal down wasn't easy. This was a man Mossad had vowed to kill. He had been in hiding for nearly 30 years and was immensely nervous about appearing before the cameras. His wife told him not to do the interview.

Macdonald's account of their meeting at a secret location somewhere in North Africa sounds like something out of Michael Mann's The Insider. "He felt it would be a good thing for him in the long run, if his story came out in the open, brought him out of the shadows. He has been living in hiding for so long now, living in fear. It's difficult to know whether it's genuine fear or paranoia - where one ends and the other begins. He found it very, very difficult to talk. The interview lasted for a long time but we got very little usable material out of it."

One startling allegation that Jamal did make was that the West German government knew about the hijacking of a Lufthansa passenger plane eight weeks after the Olympics. The plane was diverted from Beirut to Munich to pick up the three surviving terrorists. It was, Jamal claims, all part of an elaborate charade to get the terrorists off German soil.

The allegation has infuriated the German authorities. "They're still shuffling this under the carpet - they don't want the story to come out," Macdonald says. While making the film, he was unable to persuade any of the snipers, helicopter pilots or police officers involved in the disastrous rescue attempt at the Fürstenfeldbruck airport to talk on camera. He claims that retired policemen believed that if they co-operated, they would lose their pensions.

Even the usually forthcoming Hans-Dietrich Genscher (the man who negotiated with the terrorists) was wary. According to Macdonald, his reputation as the friendly face of German politics, is "completely undeserved". When he finally agreed to a 10-minute interview, he refused to speak English, even though he speaks fluently."

Ironically, by being so cagey, the authorities made the film that much more dramatic. "If they hadn't tried to cover up all this information about what went wrong, there wouldn't have been a film for us to make... it's a tragedy for the Germans but they do their utmost to extinguish any sympathy that you might have with them."

Several critics have accused Macdonald of letting things get personal, something he only half denies. "When people are blocking you at every turn and threatening you, you begin to get a bit annoyed. I suspect there is a bit of bias but that's a reflection of the experience I had trying to make the film in Germany." Two Stern journalists were also outraged by the use of German witnesses to confirm Jamal's claims, essentially by a series of winks and nods. "They rang the witnesses up and the latter denied everything," says Macdonald, "but the whole point was that I caught them off guard. The journalists were extremely offended that anybody should be levelling these kind of accusations at Germany without their being 100 per cent confirmed."

Others, not least some National Film School students Macdonald showed the film to, see the film as Zionist propaganda. He dismisses the charge: "It is naturally a subject to provoke sympathy for the Israeli athletes. To make it any other way would be perverse."

At the same time, Macdonald says he was nervous, early on, that co-producer Arthur Cohn would force him " into making a pro-Zionist film" and is keen to stress the differences between their visions. Macdonald says he was determined that the narration, delivered by Michael Douglas, be "very unemotional, very objective". He goes on to mention that "When we interviewed a widow of one of the athletes, Cohn was annoyed she wasn't emotional. I rather liked that, her cold dignity - he would much rather she cried and knashed her teeth." (The two rather comically clashed again on Oscar night. According to Macdonald, he was expecting Cohn to only "say two sentences", thus leaving time for Macdonald to give a speech. In the event, Cohn took up all the alloted time - "a little frustrating," mutters Macdonald).

Macdonald claims he is not especially interested in either sport or politics. His previous documentaries have been about film-makers - about his grandfather, Emeric Pressburger, about Howard Hawks, and Donald Cammell (the idea of tackling the Munich Olympics was suggested by producer, John Battsek).

Thanks to Macdonald, One Day in September boasts the rollicking music, eye-popping montage sequences, and the kind of oppressive tension you find in well-structured thrillers. As far as he's concerned, the aim of his film is simple: "We were trying to reveal an important truth - to reveal to the wide public a scandalous story, to allow the eyes of a large audience in to see what they don't want us to see."

'One Day In September' is released on 19 May. It has yet to secure US distribution