The September Tapes

Fact and fiction mix together in The September Tapes, a fictional movie that passing itself off as a documentary, along the same lines as The Blair Witch Project, or even Incident at Loch Ness.  The premise is that filmmaker Don Larson (George Calil, Tiger Heart), still reeling over the events of 9/11, vows to travel to Afghanistan to find Osama bin Laden.  He is angry, frustrated, and wants to know why bin Laden killed so many people.  During filming, writer/director Christian Johnston, Calil, and translator Wali Razaqi (In the Wrong Hands) actually traveled to Afghanistan and filmed, without letting people know that this was a fictional movie.  So in a way, it was real, since the three were actually looking for bin Laden while playing characters looking for bin Laden.

The big problem with The September Tapes is that it smacks of opportunism.  It feels like Johnston is using the tragic events of 9/11 to make a film.  It is a valid criticism that would not be as strong if the movie were better.  In fact, reading about making the film was more interesting than the film itself.  The Larson character is driven by frustration.  He is thinking with his heart, and not with his head, so many of his actions are rash.  This is extremely frustrating for anybody watching the film, since Larson acts like he has a death wish.  Razaqi is the calming presence.  He is the only way that Larson can communicate with the people around him, and is frequently diffusing tense situations.  However, Razaqi is often whiny and annoying to both Larson and the viewer.  The worst element about these characters is that they are inconsistent.  Usually, Razaqi whines and complains, but sometimes he sucks it up and shows a surprising amount of courage.  Larson wants to press ahead and quickly as possible to find bin Laden, then pauses one morning to play football with local children.

The plot of the film also borders on the incredulous.  It is highly unlikely that an American with a camera would get anywhere close to bin Laden, and even more improbable that somebody like Larson would.  Yet, Calil, Razaqi and Johnston did manage to get out near the Pakistan/Afghanistan border with some bounty hunters who were also looking for bin Laden.  Johnston spends a lot of time with Calil, having him deliver long, ill-informed monologues into the camera.  The Larson character embodies the stereotype of what many people in the Middle East probably think of Americans.  He is headstrong, stubborn, and doesn't listen to their side of the story.  The end of the film reveals Larson's true reasons for filming, and it's pretty bad.  So let's talk more about the making of The September Tapes.  It uses the same, jerky camera motion that announces it is a documentary, and supposedly many of the bullets, guns, and missiles are real.  But there were a few reshoots too, so this is a fake reenactment of a scene in a fake documentary that some participants believed was real.  Got it?

The real question is why Johnston chose to film this movie the way he did.  The crew went to Afghanistan less than a year after the attacks on the World Trade Center.  It was both brave and rash of them to do this.  Although there are some tense moments in The September Tapes, especially when Calil and Razaqi are in running gun battles, fictionalizing the story takes a lot of the dramatic impact away.  If Johnston made an actual documentary, it would have been much more powerful. 

Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Bad.

1 hour, 35 minutes, English and Farsi with English subtitles, Rated R for language and violent images.

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