"Thus open the gates of paradise."

In this issue

One Day In September

06 Apr 2002

At the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, a group of Palestinian extremists took eleven Israeli athletes hostage for the return of two hundred political prisoners. The situation was handled poorly by the German police, and in the end, all of the hostages were lost, and all but three of the Palestinians were killed. This is a matter of historical record; you can go look it up.

If you want to see a collection of television and film footage from that day in September, then this film is for you. It tells the story using a combination of original footage and recent interviews with several relatives of those murdered. The film is a documentary. This is a matter of fact; no one would doubt it.

I'm trying to give you an example of what a presentation of objective facts is like. Approximately. In the preceding paragraphs, I did characterize the hostage-takers as "extremists," which is a value judgement. So is my description of the police's actions as "poor", but given that their activities were being broadcast on television as events unfolded, and given that they did not have a trained anti-terrorism branch of their police or army, I think you might allow me the word "poor." I'm doing these semantic gymnastics in reaction to having just watched the film which is anything but objective. It is manipulative and sensationalist, and it's for these reasons that I think it is not a good documentary.

Early on, it invokes memories of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Narrator Michael Douglas tells us that this was the Olympiad "misused by the Nazis for propaganda." Misused? What does that mean, I wondered, but to no avail. Apparently this was supposed to be a statement of fact, a matter of historical record. But this is value judgement, and if you're going to go around making claims like that, you'd better be prepared to give your reasons.

Certainly there's no reason a documentary can't have a point of view, but making your point without addressing the other side of the story is just irresponsible. For example, the film does not go into any depth about why these Palestinians took the action they did beyond the desire for the release of political prisoners. It does not say, for example, why they were arrested, nor does it give any background on the political events in the Middle East at that time. How can we, as an audience, be expected the judge the events without some sort of context? Or was the filmmaker hoping I'd involve myself in the apparent incompetence of the German authorities in dealing with the situation? If that's the case, then why the overwrought collages of photos of the athletes with their families, or at the end, the pictures of them dead with eyes open and bodies bloodied?

A story like this does not need the ham-handed treatment it has received here by director Kevin Macdonald. It is sufficiently powerful that if one stuck to the objective facts, its point could have been made much more effectively. Take a look at Errol Morris' documentary "The Thin Blue Line" to see how cutting and precise a trial-by-film can be. I can't dispute the events as this film shows them, but if you see it, watch with a critical eye. Question what you are being told, be aware of where the facts end, and think about the things that are not being said.

Related Sites

One Day In September (IMDB)
Munich host terror remembered (A summary of events)
The Olympic Museum (Strangely bereft of any reference to the hostage taking)
The International Olympic Committee (Also silent on this topic)