Terrorism and conscience were always going to be essential components of a documentary film revealing the secrets of a world leader like Yasser Arafat. Besides which, Price of Kings director Richard Symons had always wanted to get into the mind of a "terrorist" so securing Bassam Abu Sharif for the film was a coup. He was the face of the PFLP for the extraordinary 1970's attack that became known as "The Dawson's Field Hijacking" (some describe it as the 9/11 of it's time - see footage in the trailer below) as well as the man who recruited and trained "Carlos the Jackal".
We dug into Richard Symons' personal production diary from the shoot.
4am, 9th February
Dreaming of hijacking passenger jets and blasting them to kingdom come. Whaaaammmmmmmmm. What must that feel like?
I'm about to find out. Today we fly to Jordan to meet the man Time magazine called "The Face of Terror".
The Dawson's Field hijackings. From The Price of Kings : Film 1, Yasser Arafat.
Bassam Abu Sharif was to be one of our last interviewees for the Arafat film. The day before he was coming to London he called and told us his UK visa had run out. Several phone calls later to the foreign office and our embassy in Jordan established we could turn around a visa in time, "just fax over the guy's details". We gave them a couple of hours to run their checks, then called to confirm. On reflection perhaps we should have foreseen the Foreign office, once they'd done any kind of research on Bassam, would be less than enthusiastic. We ended up having to fly the production to Amman the next morning.
As a six year old I've a vivid memory of watching three jets sitting patiently on a dusty runway, gleaming in the desert sun. Camels ambled across the foreground, chewing slowly as they walked. The camera jolted as the first shockwave hits, followed by several enormous explosions and the jets disintegrated before my very wide eyes. The living room fell silent. Born on November 5th, in my mind fireworks and explosions had always been associated with large crowds going "ooh" and "aaah" in time with each detonation lighting the sky. My father's face told me this was different. The man with the megaphone making known to the world the demands of the Palestinian hijackers was Bassam Abu Sharif.
When I watched the second plane hit the twin towers, 31 years and a day later, I was immediately shunted back to the flickering images on that very new 1970 colour tv set and my fathers face. Everything had changed - the balance of power, air travel, how you looked at a man wearing traditional Arab dress.
In recently released papers we learnt that Ted Heath's government capitulated completely (but quietly) to Bassam and the PFLP - what else were you to do when confronted with the demands of a man who hijacks jets, blows them up and tells you the passengers are next. The great equaliser of the 19th century was the Colt Navy .36. Overnight, every man, woman or child was on equal terms with the strongest of men - from then on, it just came down to a question of will. But you couldn't take on governments, or an army. The AK47 helped a little - two or three untrained guerillas in urban warfare were fairly well matched against a squad of very expensive marines.
Bassam Abu Sharif took it to the next level. He told us what he learned from the Dawson's Field hijacking was that if you had the willpower, the balls and the imagination, you could go toe to toe with several governments. At the same time. And get what you wanted.
We wanted to interview Bassam because he had a unique insight into Yasser Arafat and terrorism - a key component to any film trying to expose the reality of his leadership.
Arafat had tried to talk him and the PFLP down from killing civilians at Dawson's Field, in fact he tried unsuccessfully to persuade Bassam to release them. Years later, Bassam left the PFLP and became Yasser Arafat's media man - and was right in the thick of it when he renounced terrorism (actually, the first time Arafat read the prepared statement he managed to renounce "tourism"). Aside from all of that, I also wanted to know exactly what turns a 24 year old onto hijacking. How do you get to that place?
From left to right: (top row) Bassam Abu Sharif at his graduation, as PFLP member, making demands at Press conference for Dawsons' Field Hijacking, (bottom row) the Hijackings make the cover of Time Magazine. Joanna Natasegara with Bassam Abu Sharif filming for The Price of Kings: Film 1, Yasser Arafat
In documentaries, no matter what you expect to film, expect the story to be, without fail those expectations are only ever useful as a benchmark for how wrong you can be. When we interviewed General Rajoub (one-time head of Arafat's security services and long-time Palestinian fighter) he'd told us he was arrested as a 15 year old by the Israeli Defence Forces and "the way I was beaten, tortured" changed him. The way he told it (a barely audible guttural growl yet with enough bass energy to send the sound level meters into the red) made hairs stand on the back of my neck. I was expecting something similar from Bassam, but the final straw for him turned out to be Israel's astonishing victory in 1967.
In just six days the IDF decimated the armies and infrastructure of their Arab neighbours to such an extent that young men like Bassam, who had been used to living under similarly repressive conditions that led to the "Arab Spring" suddenly got their first taste of freedom. He told us that once he'd had that taste he could never go back. "Once you know what it is to be free... well".
In his living room, after the interview, we watch Mubarek step down on TV. Bassam turns his one eye (he lost the other along with several fingers and a decent chunk of his face courtesy of a Mossad book bomb) to us and smiled, "They've just had their first taste of freedom. Now it's gonna get interesting".