Saxon Logan On Documentary Sylvia: Tracing Blood

Saxon Logan at the World Premiere of Sylvia: Tracing Blood in Israel

Saxon Logan's magnificent documentary, Sylvia: Tracing Blood, attempts to wrestle with the truth and lies surrounding Sylvia Raphael: a young South African woman who became Mossad's top spy. Her cover was blown in 1973 when a mission to kill Ali Hassan Salameh - the mastermind behind the Black September group's massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics - in Lillehammer, resulted instead in the murder of Ahmed Bouchickhi (brother of the Gipsy Kings' Chico Bouchikhi). Here, Logan talks about Sylvia Raphael and his thought-provoking film. 

 Israel's Permanent Representative to the UN, Danny Danon, said last year that the Munich massacre was the foundation for the terrorism we see in Israel, and elsewhere, today. Do you regard it as that pivotal? 

 "I don't think that anything can be attributed to Munich other than the fact that it was a disgraceful and wicked attempt to skew world politics in the perpetrators' favour. The response, I think, was commensurate. What took place afterwards was kind of if you give out, you've got to expect to receive retribution. And that's exactly what took place." 

Was what happened in Lillehammer revealing? 

"What Munich threw up was the fact that Mossad were not the superior force that the world had come to accept them as. I'm not Jewish but I remember living in that time and thinking Mossad were virtually at a level of Marvel comics. And then, unfortunately, Lillehammer occurred, and they were deemed to be vulnerable, and obviously were deeply humiliated by that incident. And so the terror went on." 

You are a supporter of Israel but you haven't allowed that to unbalance your film. Was balance important? 

"Yes, I think there was a real need for it. It's not a Zionist tract, although I would call myself a Zionist. And there's no real contradiction in that, because I think Zionists can be equally balanced in their view, in their outlook on life and emotions, and so on, and ultimately be deeply humane. This whole notion that if you are a Zionist you are somehow vociferously opposed to anything but a particular ideal is, in my view, ridiculous. It comes down to a very sort of moot point, as I say in the film: do you want to live in a world with Israel or without it? Heaven knows what this world would be like without Israel." 

I was surprised when you raised the question in the film. 

"Well, it could seriously not exist. And as I say, the one thing I got from making this film was that even those people that you thought would really have or feel an animus towards Sylvia, didn't. They actually respected her. They understood her. And in some cases, bizarrely, had an affection for her. Even Chico Bouchikhi said: 'If I was going to be shot by somebody, I'd be shot by somebody as good looking as that.' And Chico Bouchikhi, to give him his due, is enormously supportive of a peaceful Middle East with Israel firmly established. He performs there in spite of the creative embargo that has been tacitly placed on Israel. He sees it for what it is." 

Throughout the film people say Sylvia wasn't Jewish. However, her father was, and her brother David, known as Bunty, observes that they'd have been killed by the Nazis. 

"Absolutely. And I think that what was very affecting in the film was it suddenly dawned on Bunty that that's what she was really committed to preventing happening again. I'm sure there were all kinds of different appendages to that particular motive, but I think that was her principle motive: to ensure that what occurred in Europe would never, ever happen again." 

The film is about Sylvia but it also becomes a film about the Israeli psyche, and the geographical and demographic predicament of Israel; it's about forgiveness and revenge, the unhealed wound of the Holocaust, etc. Did you plan to cover those themes or did they emerge as you went along? 

"Obviously I was absolutely taken in by the idea that here was a woman who became Mossad's top combatant, spy and assassin, whatever you want to call her, and that she was technically and genetically, theoretically, a non Jew. That was fascinating. But I really did not expect it to have the layers that you've aptly described, solely because as a filmmaker I tend to approach things with an organic impetus." 

 When you look at Israel in the film, you bring in Masada and the iconic story of Jewish resistance. It feels like it's a meaningful story for you. 

 "Masada was very important to me. The ultimate resistance to a greater force prevailing on you is to ultimately jointly agree that you'd rather be dead than alive. And in many respects there is a kind of resonance because, as that famous Spanish revolutionary [Emiliano Zapata] said, 'It's better to die standing than live on your knees.' I think that's why Masada was so poignant to me: it counterbalances the idea that somehow Jews went to their fate ignorant, supine and malleable [in the Holocaust]. There was constant resistance to it all, but equally there was this stupid trust that something as awful as this could never take place in a culture such as this." 

Sylvia's job was not to be known. People knew her as photographer Patricia Roxborough. How much of a challenge does that present for someone who wants to understand the real woman? She still remains something of a mystery in the film. 

"And will always. Obviously, budgetry-wise and time-wise there was a limit to how much I could go on scratching below the surface. We were very fortunate to have her widower take part, and extremely fortunate to have her brother, who is essentially her memories keeper, very much involved in the film, so that we could cross-check things. But you see it when we go to Mossad's centre, she is still, and will always remain, a secret. Israelis have a very high opinion of her but it's an opinion, in my view, that's based on unnecessary propaganda, that her story is told in a way that is intended to inspire, whereas in actual fact the truth is more inspirational." 

Addressing the propaganda point, was there a certain amount of debunking involved in your approach? 

"There is a book by Moti Kfir [Sylvia Rafael: The Life and Death of a Mossad Spy] and I think, being a senior Mossad operative, he felt duty-bound to be circumspect in telling her story, and then felt, or had been mislead into thinking, that certain things happened that simply didn't. My film sets certain points straight on that. In terms of propaganda, I suppose it's too loaded a word to use, but it was such a pro Sylvia book that, in a sense, there's kind of no shading at all." 

So what do we know for sure about Sylvia? 

"There are things that we will never know that Sylvia got up to. But it is true that she was responsible for, near enough, eliminating the entire European Palestinian wing that were behind not just Munich but many other outrages that took place. Mossad feel a huge debt of gratitude, and I think that's why they cooperated in the way they did. But I was made aware that there would be certain stuff held back because, even today, other agencies can extrapolate from things she did and, perhaps, detect what they're up to in contemporary times." 

Sylvia's father was an assimilated Jew who succeeded in an antisemitic environment. Could he have been an early example for her of how to disappear, survive and thrive in a potentially hostile environment? 

"Exactly that. How to cope. How to get on. How to get under that little gap that's presented. I think she actually just wanted to be an actress, and I think that also is key to how she was able to do what she did. But to suggest that it didn't take a toll on her is crazy, because it obviously did eat her up. No question that it triggered off what ultimately was diagnosed as [terminal] leukaemia." 

Sylvia's family lived in Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. Did she spend her entire childhood there? 

"All of her childhood and adolescence was spent in Graaff-Reinet. I should say most because she was then sent to boarding school after she witnessed, and was distressed by, some boys in GR pushing a little Jewish girl in a wheel barrow and chanting, 'We're going to take you to Hitler'. The Afrikaners were largely antisemitic and to some of their leaders' disgrace sympathised with the Nazis." 

As a spy, she must have been incredibly lonely at times. Because although she had relationships with people such as the British journalist Jon Swain, who suspected nothing and appears in the film, she could never be completely honest with people. 

"Well isn't that the case? Trust is so important to a woman in a relationship and she couldn't afford anybody her trust because she was lying. Jon is a wonderful person to speak to because there he was with a wonderful reputation as an investigative reporter, and living with a woman who was the ultimate story. He actually discovered her true identity when he was in Vietnam and her picture came over the wires with her in handcuffs, and he was like, 'Hey, that's my girlfriend. What's all this about?'" 

Do you know how Sylvia experienced the Black September terrorist attack at the Munich Olympics?  

"She was in Israel and like a lot of people saw it unfold on the news. She was obviously considered to be a senior operative, but a lot of these combatants are divided into units, and she fell under the auspices of Mike Harari, who in many ways was quite the opposite to Sylvia. He was very brash and very egotistical. He was put in charge of her unit, at arm's length, and she was obviously flown out and told what the mission was." 

At what point during the operation in Lillehammer did it become clear that something was wrong? 

"Well Sylvia was really the first one to realise that something was wrong and she kept cabling back, saying, 'This is not right. Our target speaks fluent French and I know Salameh doesn't speak fluent French.' She knew something wasn't right and by the time they got around to shooting him, knew they were hitting the wrong person, and that they had been played by Salameh." 

Did you talk to anyone, or try to talk to anyone, who would have been on the opposite side to Sylvia? 

"I spoke to Salameh's widow, [Lebanese former Miss Universe] Georgina Riz. We had a very perfunctory chat on the phone and she made it quite clear she didn't like her ex husband and would have nothing to do with the film." 

You try getting in contact with Sylvia's favourite "wet worker" [Mossad's name for its assassins], Jerry, in the film. Did you ever catch up with him? 

"Put it this way: he came for about 24 hours, to suss us out ... When I was dealing with Mossad they mentioned him, because he's still operating. I said I knew that he had come to our hotel in Tel Aviv and they at first found it hard to believe, but in the end kind of accepted that that had taken place." 

Is the assumption that he was involved in Lillehammer? 

"Yes. That is a clear assumption. They were called 'wet workers' because basically they got sprayed with blood and they very quickly were able to change clothes. They were the last in and first out in many operations. So they would have gone before poor old Ahmed Bouchikhi had hit the ground. Sylvia was ultimately Jerry's commander, so she had to stick around to try and sort out the mess." 

Ahmed's brother, Chico, talks about forgiveness as a way to heal yourself. However, it seems clear from the film that Israel cannot afford to do that, because if it became complacent it could be the end. 

"Well that's my point entirely. You're quite right. There's no way they can sit down at a negotiating table like, perhaps, they did in Northern Ireland, and do a bit of give and take, and so on and so forth. There's just no way they can do that. So you're dealing an entity that cannot afford to lose."  

The UK premiere of Sylvia: Tracing Blood, including a Q & A with Saxon Logan, will take place at JW3, on Sunday 7th May, in aid of the charity Habaid. For more information go to

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