September Tapes is a classic example of pure, unadulterated American chutzpah. It’s a daring, ambitious independent movie that takes viewers to Afghanistan in search of Osama Bin Laden.
Under a Blood Red Sky
R for language, violent images
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a journalist, Don Larson (George Calil, the 2004 Spartacus remake), is driven to take things into his own hands. With a radical need to see things for himself and do what most other people only dream of, Don sets off for Afghanistan with a cameraman and an Afghan-American translator.
Their primary goal is to create a documentary about bounty hunters in pursuit of the world’s most wanted man, Bin Laden. If they actually manage to find him during their journey and bring him to justice, so much the better. At the very least, if they survive the insanity, they’ll have one helluva story to tell.
The world this trio enters is one spun madly out of control. Gun runners, bounty hunters, soldiers, and al Qaeda supporters surround them at every turn.
The kicker is most of September Tapes was shot “live.” Director Christian Johnston and his crew entered Afghanistan armed with an outline and a vision, but their strategy left the door open for one wildcard situation after another. The gunfire is real. The mobs crowding around the filmmakers are real. The perils are real.
September Tapes has been dubbed by some as The Bin Laden Witch Project, but that sells far too short the ambitions and intentions of the band of filmmakers who dared to journey to Afghanistan only 10 months after the attacks on the United States.
Yes, the overall concept sounds hauntingly similar to The Blair Witch Project, the blockbuster horror flick that changed many of the rules of independent filmmaking. In this case, documentary footage turns up revealing the mysterious final days of a film crew that disappeared while in pursuit of Bin Laden. Much is made of the authentic nature of the tapes and the “true” story which they tell. With September Tapes though, better parallels can be found in the likes of Apocalypse Now and its progenitor, Heart of Darkness.
Don starts his journey in Heathrow airport, looking young and clean, but burdened with a mission of his own making and possessed by a secret drive. After only a few weeks on the war front, his nerve-shattering adventure takes its toll as he is faced with the deaths of his crewmates and his own mortality.
Everything You Know Is Wrong
September Tapes tells its story from a unique perspective. This isn’t another party-bashing diatribe akin to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, nor is this a glorious celebration of war and American valor in the tradition of Patton. This is what could almost be termed “fair and balanced cinema.”
While Don is naturally outraged by the events of 9/11, his translator, Wali Zarif (played by Wali Razaqi, who was born in Kabul, Afghanistan), plays a devil’s advocate who raises an alternate point of view. Their discussions hit nerves on both counts and emotions draw their conversations short. Even as the film plays off such an emotional powder keg, it manages to carefully dance across the gap.
September Tapes is not a perfect movie, but it does have loads of ingenuity on its side. Bearing that out, some of the raw footage shot on the streets of Kabul, from simply walking through the markets after the crew arrives to playing pick up soccer in a barren lot, rank among the most exciting footage of the year.
The film’s very conceit, staging story elements in the midst of a real war, can be distracting from the narrative itself. Nonetheless, if every American-made movie displayed a mere portion of the wild, nearly reckless ambition put into September Tapes, well, what a wonderful world that would be.