I deliberately saw September Tapes without reading about it beforehand. When a note on screen announced that these tapes had been "obtained by soldiers at the Pakistani border" and that the film company had acquired the rights to them from Northern Alliance forces, I couldn't help thinking of The Blair Witch Project. The erratic camerawork was also a lot like Blair Witch, the 1999 horror movie playfully posing as a documentary. I reprimanded myself for the irreverence; this was a deadly serious film about the search for Osama bin Laden.
When Don Larson, the young American who has gone into Afghanistan less than a year after Sept. 11, walks out on a card game in Kabul after someone suggests Americans brought the terrorist attacks on themselves, I feared for his mental health. It's dangerous enough for any American to be in Afghanistan; for a hothead with bad judgment, it could be fatal.
Luckily, it soon becomes clear that Don is being played by an actor, George Calil, as is his translator, Wali Zarif (Wali Razaqi). They and Johnston have created a blend of fact and fiction, in which some Afghans (the Kabul police, for instance) know they are working with a script outline and others (people in the street) don't.
The dead giveaway is that most characters speak like US reality-series contestants, improvising attempts at making certain points with believable verbal interaction. "Wali, if I get thrown in with the suspects they're arresting, I may actually learn something," Don says eagerly.
What September Tapes presents is actual film of the streets and countryside of Afghanistan; Afghans acting out arrests, threats and ambushes; a few people reacting genuinely; and no way to tell the difference. Maybe Johnston, who has directed television commercials and music videos, intended this to be a guessing game. But the method robs the real encounters of their power and, even more important, trivializes the subject.
Directed by: Christian Johnston
Starring: George Calil (Don Larson), Wali Razaqi (Wali Zarif), C.K. Smith (Commander), Sunil Sadarangani (Sunil), Baba Jon (Rahman), Dawood Zarif (Guard/Gun Dealer)
Running time: 90 minutes
Taiwan Release: Tomorrow
Granted, Don and Wali's encounter with the gun dealers is unnerving. The producers said this was an authentic interaction, but the closing credits list actors' names as the dealers. The bullets and missiles whizzing by are also real, they say. On the other hand, while the harrowing post-curfew checkpoint incident did happen, what appears on screen is a re-creation. This succeeds only in being confusing, and even taken strictly as fiction, the film is unconvincing. At the end, Don's surprise revelation, meant to pack an emotional wallop, falls flat, as do some other revelations.
"Bin Laden and his men went right past the US military into the mountains," says a bounty-hunting commander (C.K. Smith), "right near the Pakistani border." They traveled on horseback, he says, at "nighttime under cloud cover."
Good to know.