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OSCARS 2000 | Documentary

It's a Triumph for Principled Film Producer

With its Oscar win for best documentary feature, 'One Day in September' may now have a theatrical release.

March 27, 2000|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ten days into the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, eight terrorists armed with submachine guns, from the Black September movement, invaded the living quarters of the Israeli athletes, took 11 hostages and demanded the release of 200 Palestinians jailed in Israel. Prime Minister Golda Meir flatly refused, stating that to capitulate would endanger the lives of Israelis everywhere.

Less then 24 hours later, the savage hostage-taking culminated in a botched rescue attempt at a nearby airport. The worst terrorist attack in sports history cost the lives of the athletes, five of the eight Palestinians and one German policeman.

The complex chain of events that led to the catastrophe has never been fully illuminated until renowned producer Arthur Cohn agreed to produce "One Day in September," which won the Oscar on Sunday for best documentary. Directed by Kevin Macdonald, the documentary plays like a political thriller. But it has yet to receive a theatrical release.

After winning the Oscar, Cohn said backstage that "we will decide on the distribution for the film in the next few weeks." Cohn said he felt particularly proud to win this year.

"What a wonderful assembly of very important films," Cohn said of the documentary nominees. "In 20 years I have not seen so much attention paid to documentary films."

According to the Switzerland-based Cohn, the film took two years to research, yielding fresh information and never-before-seen footage, and won the participation of virtually all the living key players in the incident, including, amazingly enough, the one surviving Black September terrorist, Jamil Al Gashey, now in hiding somewhere in Africa. (The Mossad tracked down and killed the other two terrorists who survived the rescue attempt.)

Without Al Gashey, Cohn admits, he wouldn't have produced the film when Macdonald and John Battsek of the London-based Passion Pictures approached him with the project. "Al Gashey gives the film an evenhandedness," Cohn, 62, said recently over brunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He was in town for the American Film Institute and Museum of Tolerance world premieres of the film in January. "We wanted to avoid the film being labeled as propaganda."

Indeed, Al Gashey, his face disguised for the camera, relishes the opportunity to express his enduring pride in an action that to his way of thinking brought worldwide attention to the plight of the Palestinians.

The making of "One Day" was as much a revelation for Cohn as it will be for most audiences. He found several aspects of the Black September attack, uncovered during two years of research, especially appalling: the close collaboration of the terrorists with East Germans, which helped them gain entry into the Olympic Village and then provided them with sophisticated surveillance equipment that allowed them to observe whatever rescue operations were going on; the Olympic officials who wanted the Games to continue above all else, so that a priority was put on getting the terrorists and their captives out of the village and onto helicopters to a nearby airport where a plane awaited, supposedly to fly them out of West Germany; and finally the last-minute refusal of the German policemen assigned to hide aboard that plane to trap the terrorists.

"For me, the police were the worst," said Cohn. "Can you imagine an armed burglar breaking into a house in Los Angeles and the police refusing to enter it, calling it a suicide mission?" He found it incredible that the West Germans did not clear the roads to the airport, slowing the arrival of tanks, which were ordered late in the first place; that they had only five sharpshooters in place, mistakenly assuming there were not nearly as many as eight terrorists; and then had set up no means of communication between them.

Tragic yet riveting and profoundly moving, "One Day" is the kind of consciousness-raising work with universal themes that has characterized Cohn's entire career, which includes such diverse films as the Vittorio De Sica-directed "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" and "A Brief Vacation" to Barbara Kopple's "American Dream," a documentary on a prolonged strike at a Hormel meat-packing plant, to 1998's Brazilian drama "Central Station," in which an aging, bitter woman is transformed when she comes to the aid of a little boy.

Cohn is fond of pointing out that he takes on projects that Hollywood would deem uncommercial and turns them into international successes. He is, however, equally quick to proclaim the value of an Oscar to a foreign film or a documentary. Over the years, he has remarked many times that without an Oscar he couldn't have gotten distribution outside Italy for "Finzi-Continis," an exquisitely told tale of the fate of a family of aristocratic Italian Jews during World War II. The 1971 release also resurrected De Sica's long-floundering directorial career for a final flourish before his death in 1974.

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