Interview: Director José Padilha Offers Insight On Controversial Themes In ‘7 Days In Entebbe’
Courtesy of Focus Features

Terrorist psychology and obstacles to peace in the Middle East pervade the film.

Now in theaters, “7 Days in Entebbe” uses the famous 1976 Israeli military operation in Entebbe to explore deeper ideas not seen in the more black and white cinematic accounts made in the late 1970s. Using Gregory Burke's screenplay and Saul David’s historical account of the event as starting points, Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha wanted to switch things up by showing the terrorists in a different, more ambiguous light as well as exploring the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. As a commentary on the latter, Padilha intercuts the movie with a dance number by the Batsheva Dance Company, which is set to a rousing rendition of "Echad Mi Yodea."


The resulting film puts the eventual operation on the back burner while pushing controversial ideas and viewpoints to the forefront. It may not be to everyone’s tastes and may even enrage some on both the left and the right of Israeli politics, but Padilha--known for producing/directing on Netflix's "Narcos" in addition to directing the 2014 remake of "RoboCop"--is confident that he’s crafted a unique take on the story, which doesn’t shy away from broaching polarizing topics. Speaking to Blueprint from Brazil, the director expounded on his goals for the movie and why he felt it was critical to get inside the heads of the hijackers.


New York Blueprint: One of the things that most intrigued me about the film was the dance number. Can you talk a little bit about how that came to be included?

José Padilha: When I got the screenplay, it did not have the dance, but it had the most fundamental feature of the film in my view, which is the idea of [exploring] this famous military operation from completely different point[s] of view. On one hand, [there’s] the relationship between Rabin and Peres and [the] political machinations that were happening behind the scenes as they grappled with the hijack. And then on the other hand, [there’s] the perspective of the interaction between the German terrorists with the hostages and Palestinian terrorists. And in this way, it didn’t really tell the story of the military operation at all, it talked about two other things.

One of them was, to me, the constraint that politicians have in Israel when they try to negotiate with Palestine. The major population is against negotiations and it’s very difficult to take [an official] stance that ‘We need to talk to the Palestinians to solve issues, even in a situation as critical as Entebbe in which people could die.’ Rabin himself, as you can see in the movie, didn’t really think that there was gonna be a possible military success. He thought it was very risky and still, Peres cornered him in such a way that he had to agree with the military option. So that constraint in Israeli politics somewhat explains why we have never had a peace agreement. And you can look at the history outside of the movie and you can see that Rabin was murdered by a radical, Orthodox, right-wing person when he tried to negotiate in Oslo.

And by the way, the same constraint applies to the Palestinians because when [Yasser] Arafat was negotiating with Ehud Barak in Camp David, Ehud Barak put forth a very good proposal—at least considered so by the international community—and all that Arafat did was say ‘No,’ the reason being he would lose all of his political standing in Palestine if he agreed to any sort of negotiation. So, the Orthodox position, both in Palestine and Israel, is not to negotiate and to frame the other side as the enemy.

So now, let’s talk about the dance. The dance shows dancers dressed in Orthodox clothing, they start to dance, they perform movements of self-inflicted pain, and as they dance, they strip themselves of [that] Orthodox clothing. All, but one. And the one dancer who doesn’t do that, keeps falling from the chair and falling from the chair. I saw that as a metaphorical of criticizing Orthodox positions in Palestine and Israel, mostly in Israel, and instead of me spelling that out, I tried to use an Israeli work of art that did it. It’s not a criticism coming from the outside, but it’s a criticism coming from Israeli culture itself, hence the dance.



NYB: Since this is the fourth movie to be made on this subject, how did you work to make it different from what had come before?

JP: It was already different when it got to me, so I can’t take credit for that. I got a screenplay from Working Title and the screenplay [contained] the story from those two points of view, from those two perspectives, looking at the terrorists and how they interacted with each other and the hostages and looking at Rabin and Peres. Now, the other movies, mostly, were telling a military story and this one wasn’t; that was the biggest difference [between them]. Looking at the terrorists was somewhat necessary—we wanted to do that—but it was also necessary to account for the facts.

There’s been a recent book written by a British historian [named] Saul David that we based the screenplay on. [It contains] years of research, it was published in 2015, and basically, Saul argues that the operation was successful because of the terrorists, [Wilfred] Böse, didn’t make his priority killing the hostages. Instead, he directed the hostages to lay down on the floor and he told the other terrorists to look to the doors and to take cover. Böse could have brought [out] a grenade and machine gun and start[ed] killing right away and the history would be very different. This has been confirmed independently to me by other hostages and more prominently, by Jacques Le Moine, the French flight engineer [on Flight 139] … Once you accept that this is a fact, you are kind of saying that the success of the mission wasn’t only military. The hostages themselves are saving their own lives by getting into the head[s] of the terrorists, on one hand. And on the other hand, you have to explain the Böse character. You have to create a dramatic arc because if you don’t, [you’ve got] a movie in which you don’t look at who [Wilfred] Böse was and what he did and how he got second thoughts. [It] would just not make any sense. You see a terrorist and then all of a sudden, they decide to do what they did. It just wouldn’t work.

There is this thing about a terrorist is a trained work animal, it’s not somebody you think about and I actually find that position not so good, even in the fight on terrorism. I think we need to understand the psychology of terrorists, so we can try to avoid terrorists from showing up in the first place. We tried to look at that, so if you look at the terrorists in “Entebbe,” you will see that the Palestinians were motivated by a personal war that had been going [on] with the Israelis for a while. They have had land taken by Israelis, they have had family members killed in combat with Israeli soldiers and so on, so it was a personal thing for them. They were invested in the terrorist act in a different way [while] the Germans were doing it for Marxism. They were terrorists on account of ideology … I do believe we need to understand that terrorism is a complex phenomenon, we need to know where it comes from, what motivates the different kinds of terrorists, so we can stop terrorism from even existing.



NYB: What drew you to this project in particular? Was it being able to explore that nuanced motivation of the terrorists?

JP: I think that was a part of it. The other part was the political dimension of Rabin and Peres. Those two things were important to tackle. It’s an interesting approach that Working Title had … I included the dance in it because I thought I should, at least, metaphorically and visually create some level of criticism or commentary as opposed to just [showing] the description and what had happened there.

NYB: As director, what kind of research did you undertake before filming took place?

JP: There was [already] a lot of research done by Saul David, the British scholar who wrote the book, “Operation Thunderbolt.” The book is a minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour account of what happened [during] those seven days. Saul took upon himself the historic work of figuring out the dates and times, who was where and what they were doing and talking about. So, it’s a very detailed book. He interviewed a lot of people in the military in Israel, hostages, [and] people who understand revolutionary groups. We started with that. The book, when I read it, it had a very different account from the standard account, starting off with Böse not making his priority killing the hostages at the last second. In many other instances, [David] tackled the political problems between Rabin and Peres and so on.

My work was, [given] that I already had a screenplay and already had a book, was to verify if the book was correct. So, we took a plane, we interviewed people in France, we interviewed Jacques Le Moine, we interviewed a lot of hostages in Israel. I spoke to most of the soldiers who were in the plane and who raided the terminal. When I shot the final scene, I had right next to me Amir Ofer who was the soldier who stepped into the terminal first. I had Amir tell me ‘this is where the car stopped, this is where we shot the first Ugandan guards, this is where Muki Betser stalled, and this is where Yoni [ran and got shot].’ I basically [had Ofer] block the actors for me, according to how it really took place. That was something I had to do because it’s very polemic when Yoni died. I spoke at length with Ehud Barak, who used to be Prime Minister; I interviewed him for two days to get his account. And, I thought the book was fundamentally correct and sound. The book was very controversial when it was released, so I thought the movie would be controversial too, but I wanted to stick to the data.  

NYB: Since you are an alum of “Narcos,” and both the show and movie deal with geopolitics, would you say there are any lessons from "Narcos" you applied to “Entebbe”?

JP: If you look at the geopolitical aspects of “Narcos,” it’s about the idea that big countries get consumed [by] drugs. Mostly America, I would say, they consider the drug trade problem as a problem of supply. So, if we have a drug problem, then we need to bring [the war] to the supplier: [They] went to Colombia and killed Pablo Escobar and now the supplier’s the Cali Cartel, so [they] go after the Cali Cartel, and so on. So, they don’t consider it a problem of the [people]. If you look at it as a problem of supply, it’s a military problem. If you look at it as a problem of the [people], then it’s a health issue. For some reason, politicians find it easier to sell the idea that it’s a police problem. Basically, the American president’s way of dealing with drugs is building a wall with Mexico [laughs], which wouldn’t solve the problem of opioids because opioids have nothing to do with Mexico and that’s the biggest drug problem [America] has. That’s the geopolitics of “Narcos.” Now, with the geopolitics of Israel and Palestine, it’s really about the fact that politicians on both sides gain prominence and get elected by framing themselves as, ‘We protect the people from the enemy.’ That seems the proper way to getting votes. That way of doing geopolitics creates a real, mental wall, conceptual wall that later prevents those people from backpedaling and backing policy issues in a different way.

Courtesy of Gage Skidmore


7 Days in Entebbe


Operation Thunderbolt

José Padilha



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