One Day in September
Gripped by the Story
Interview with Kevin Macdonald

interview by Cynthia Fuchs, 1 December 2000

Kevin Macdonald speaks to me by phone from London, where, he tells me, he's rebuilding his house. The occasion for our conversation is the U.S. theatrical release of his Academy Award-winning documentary, One Day in September, which recounts the horrifying twenty-one hours during the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, when a small group of Palestinian guerillas calling themselves Black September took 11 Israeli athletes and coaches hostage in the Olympic Village. Macdonald has an easy, self-reflective manner, and is frank about his desire to make documentaries with compelling narrative structures. The director of television documentaries, Howard Hawks: American Artist and The Moving World of George Rickey (and brother of Trainspotting producer Andrew Macdonald), Kevin Macdonald is clearly interested in making documentaries for an audience that extends beyond those folks who watch the History Channel or seek out art house videos. Just so, One Day in September is overtly subjective, but also multiply, sometimes unevenly subjective as well. It's sometimes sentimental and at other times hard-hitting and incisive. The filmmakers' (Macdonald and producers John Battsek and Arthur Cohn) opinions are mixed in with those of the interviewees, who include the only surviving terrorist, German police and government officials, the head of the Israeli secret service, the single Israeli team member who escaped the Palestinians, and the relatives of the Israeli victims.

I asked Kevin Macdonald how his film compares with conventional documentaries, which purport to tell a single truth.

Kevin Macdonald: Not all traditional documentarians particularly like what we've done. We did try to push boundaries a little bit. We were hoping to attract a broader audience, who wouldn't necessarily see documentaries, and the people who have responded best to it are those who wouldn't normally go and see a documentary on a big screen.

Cynthia Fuchs: The film seems to do two things that are untraditional: it pushes those boundaries you mention, and it acknowledges the appeal of so-called reality TV.

KM: In broad terms, we were trying to make a piece of entertainment. It's not an entertaining story, it's not a movie to which you'd take a date, but it's entertaining in the sense that we're trying to tell what is a fantastically interesting story, in the strongest way possible, to keep the audience sort of gripped by the story. And that was one of the main things we tried to do: we asked ourselves, what would happen if you took a really serious topic, did an investigation, and then reported it in a way that people usually associate with a fiction film, concentrating on narrative and tension? That was the basis of the project.

CF: Even given that documentary is always subjective, you have taken on a wide range of subjective perspectives, from the only surviving Palestinian guerrilla Jamal Al Gashey to Ankie Spitzer, widow of murdered Israeli fencing coach Andre Spitzer. How did you think about organizing what were sure to be conflicting versions of what happened? 

KM: You've put your finger on it, in terms of the point of view, what we were trying to do. I wanted to present two points of view concurrently: that of the terrorist and that of the athletes. Obviously, the athletes aren't around to talk themselves, so we had to have as close as we could have to that: the widow of an athlete. We wanted to show these two points of view gradually coming together and clashing, to create a sense of dread, almost, as you see two different people whose lives are being molded by two completely different sets of circumstances and social forces, and because of the misfortune of international politics and whatever else, their lives are coming closer and closer together. Throughout the rest of the film, I wanted to carry on with that dual focus. It wasn't easy, because we didn't have a great deal of material from the Palestinians, but we wanted some idea of what was going on in that room [where the hostages were held], as well as what the reporters and authorities saw.

And it might sound naive, but I didn't want to make a political film. I wasn't making the film to make a political point, except perhaps in the broadest sense that, from a humanitarian point of view, "This is atrocious." The horror of that end scene at the airport, with the bodies and the hopelessness of that image, mixed up with Israelis and Palestinians. When I watch that, I think, "Jesus, how pointless." You can't look at this story in isolation, apart from Middle Eastern history, but I think most people bring enough background concerning what has gone on over the past fifty years or so, that they understand something of the two different perspectives.

CF: At the same time, and not to contradict you, I do think that after you see those bodies and then hear Jamal Al Gashey say that he's "proud" of what he did, it is hard to sympathize with that sentiment. The order of the images leads viewers to judge him.

KM: Of course. When you tell a story like this about innocent people being killed, your sympathies are with those victims, and when you hear the person who was party to the murder saying something like that, you feel a kind of natural distaste for that. But I wasn't trying to make a political point, like I wasn't trying to say how dreadful Palestinian terrorism is, specifically.

CF: Did you talk to Ankie about the fact that you were interviewing Jamal for the film?

KM: Yes, in fact, we found out that he was alive when she told us, right at the beginning of our research. I asked her if she knew that the Israelis were doing their revenge attacks -- as was quite well-known -- in the years after 1972, in revenge for her husband's death. And she said yes, because they used to phone up and not say who they were, but just tell her, "Ankie, listen to the radio tonight and know that that's for your husband." And she'd turn on the radio and hear an announcement about somebody being killed: pretty unpleasant. And I asked, "Are they all dead?" And she said she knew of one who was still alive. She was pretty keen to have him interviewed, to hear what he had to say, but when she saw the film, she had a pretty emotional response, seeing him, as she put it, "acting like he's a hero." It was very difficult, but she knew what was going on and had given her okay to it. An interesting thing about her is that she's not Jewish and has never converted. She's still got a Dutch passport, and works for the Dutch news in Israel. She has no family there, and only stayed for her daughter, Anouk. She didn't want her daughter to feel defeated, to see her mother driven away.

CF: That's a whole other documentary.

KM: You're right. We had a lot of footage on that, but cut it out of this film.

CF: Much of the footage you do have is from ABC News: was there any problem in securing that, or using it to the ends you did?

KM: We used it because they did such a brilliant job of it, it was so fascinating to see Jim McKay over the twenty-four hours, getting tireder and tireder, with more and more stubble on his face, getting more emotional. And also, we used it because they kept their footage. None of the other broadcasters, the BBC or whatever, did. We wanted to interview Jim McKay for the piece, but he wanted a lot of money, unfortunately. Or his agent did. You can never really tell who you're speaking with.

CF: You mentioned earlier that you were interested in making a documentary that would play in theaters, no small feat. I imagine the prizes you've won have helped that, but when you were putting it together, what made you choose Michael Douglas as narrator?

KM: Well that was the main reason we asked him: we wanted the biggest star we could get to do it [laughs]. Because it helps, especially in America. But I came up with a list of names, and the reason he was at the top of the list and the first person we approached was because there's a sort of hardness to his voice. It reminds me of Jimmy Cagney, to the point and unsentimental, not a usual voice-over voice, not the sort of windy Gregory Peck kind of voice, that I would call the "American voice over style."

CF: I was struck by the ineptitude of most everyone involved. Since that time, unfortunately, authorities and press people have become more used to dealing with these kinds of crises. But it's awful to see the cops making mistake after mistake, or Jim McKay not knowing quite how to respond, or the reporters blocking the road to the airport.

KM: One of the things about watching the film is that we recreate the experience of millions of people around the world watching this unfold. We've compressed it into one and a half hours instead of twenty-four hours, but it was an incredible media experience. It was like the landing on the moon or something, in the shared experience. Obviously there are other crises in which far more people died, but because of the complexity of circumstances -- it was set in Germany where officials tried to show the world a new democratic Germany, there was a Jewish team coming, what the Olympic Games represent, etc. -- it has taken on this huge significance, like the JFK assassination. For many Jews around the world, it was a defining event of the past fifty years.

CF: How did you decide to enhance the story with "devices," like the map, the (rather anomalous) ticking digital clock, the slow motion shots?

KM: We tried everything to promote the strength of the narrative, to accentuate the thriller-like aspects of it. The story naturally has a tension that keeps people on the edge of their seats, as does any hostage situation: everybody sitting on the outside looking in, the clocks ticking, the deadlines, everyone at home watching on television. The map helped because a lot of people don't know where Libya or Munich is, but more importantly, it's a map from that period, so the coloration and quality of the print add to the texture of the times. With everything, including the music, we tried to recreate a feeling of the times.

CF: Speaking of the music, the Philip Glass scoring is obviously evocative of Errol Morris' work.

KM: I'm a big Errol Morris fan; I made a TV profile of Errol [A Brief History of Errol Morris, for Bravo], and I got to know him well while doing that. Still, I slightly regret using so much Philip Glass, because I think that Morris has used it so brilliantly that it's so associated with his films. But for a long time I've cut all my rough cuts of documentaries to Philip Glass music, and in this instance, we cut with the Glass and then decided to keep much of it in the end, and we could. What is so good in the music to cut to is that it creates strong rhythms and a momentum that takes you forward. Glass's music doesn't ultimately tell you what you should be thinking: there's an amazing adaptability in it, that actually brings out the quality that's in the image, rather than dictating to the image. In the world of documentary, there are some works that have been very influential to me, including The Thin Blue Line, and Marcel Ophüls films, like Hotel Terminus. In some way I would like this film to be more like The Thin Blue Line than it is. But what Errol had there was a lot of people who were willing to talk and talk and talk. But obviously, my problem was dealing with people who didn't want to say anything at all. So I'm using shorter spurts and it's a more pinpoint kind of process.

CF: Actually, I was surprised to see [General Ulrich] Wegener [Aide-de-camp to the German Minister of the Interior in 1972] be so forthcoming.

KM: He was very forthcoming. And it was surprising, because it was the first time he'd spoken openly about this, and he was, as you see, very critical of what happened. As you might imagine, when the film came out in Germany, they dubbed it into German, which I hated, but Wegener agreed to dub himself. That reassured me that he doesn't think we've manipulated facts, which some people in Germany have accused us of. Similarly, [Manfred Schreiber], the Chief of Police in Munich at the time, who also appears briefly in the film, wrote a letter to a newspaper that had published a critical article, defending the film, saying it was an accurate portrayal of what occurred.

CF: I imagine that it's hard to come to a sense of what's accurate, even for yourself, considering how many perspectives you're juggling.

KM: On one side of the coin, of course, I agree with you: you can't give a definitive version of events. And we played with that, to give the audience the idea that they didn't know who to believe. When Jamal says, "We didn't want to kill anyone," for instance, I didn't want to include a voice over that gave opinions. We wanted one that gave very straightforward facts, uncontroversial, so that viewers would make up their own minds about whom to believe, like they do while watching an Errol Morris film. On another side, though, some things just happened. When it comes to the police cock-ups, we were lucky enough to get hold of the documents relating to the Munich police internal investigation, conducted just a month after the event. These had never been made available to the public, and we got hold of the original testimonies -- in transcript form -- interviews with the snipers, for instance. And from that we were able to clearly reconstruct what happened at the airport. All of that information -- they didn't know how many terrorists there were, they didn't have helmets -- came from [the testimonies].

CF: There was one line that stood out for me as editorializing, when your narrator, Michael Douglas, said that the Germans handed over the Palestinians with "indecent haste."

KM: Yes, you're probably right, that is probably our authorial voice [laughs]. I can't deny it. In some vague sense of defense, that was the perspective of the newspapers at the time, that the Germans acted without consultation with other nations or interested parties. It wasn't just our opinion.

CF: The other thing that was striking at the time, and certainly in hindsight, was what one of your interviewees called the "selfish and slightly obscene" attitude of some of the other athletes, sunning themselves, preparing for their events. Even more troubling was the Olympic Committee's determination to continue the Games while this was going on.

KM: We could have gone into that a great deal more, but it was one of the areas we decided to push to the background. But it is shocking, and I find it quite interesting, in this relationship between sports and violence. We tried to push that a little bit in that montage of the athletes competing, intercut with the hostage footage, under that rather violent Led Zep music. I think that the Olympic Committee acted in a pretty craven manner.

CF: How did you get rights to Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song"?

KM: It was a bit of a coup. The editor and I put it in originally, as a bit of a joke, not thinking that there was any chance that we'd get it. We heard that Led Zep never licensed their music. But it was so perfect in its tone of anger and despair. So our producer, John Battsek, contacted their lawyer, and we showed him a rough cut of the film and he really liked it. So he said that he would recommend that they allow us to have it, and of course, we were offering peanuts. And they came back and said they didn't want to be involved in anything that's "political." So we sent them a cut of the sequence, and they said, "Yeah, okay." We were thrilled.

Click here to read Cynthia Fuch's review.  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.