September Tapes

"Bad"

September Tapes Review


There's one thing about the man-on-a-mission indie September Tapes that's undeniable: the movie's got balls. And so do the guys that created it, having used shaky U.N. identification to enter Afghanistan just months after the September 11 terrorist attacks to shoot their film. The moviemakers' lives may have been on the line more than once. Their stories are probably more intriguing and exciting than the one in the movie.

According to the film's intro (and website), the viewer is about to witness the contents of eight videotapes found near heavy fighting between Taliban forces and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. They were the work of Don "Lars" Larson, a hell-be-damned documentary filmmaker whose obsession with life in terror-torn Afghanistan led to a suicidal search for Osama bin Laden.

It sounds like the stuff of true tension and pathos, but it doesn't work. As you may have guessed from the tired setup, the film is fictional - as a result, it feels oddly void of the reality it tries so hard to convey. Larson is actually George Calil, an actor with guts, determination, and nowhere near the level of acting chops to pull this one off. If any single component of September Tapes is responsible for us not buying it, it's Calil's huffy one-note work. He comes off as a well-practiced veteran of grad school films.

Calil is stuck with the unfortunate task of uttering voiceover lines that make Lars sound like a dumb, overdramatic vigilante. Think of... well, think of every film where an unnecessary voiceover contributes to a generally bad time. Calil's weak delivery only further emphasizes that the drama is thin and the action predictable - astounding considering the inherent danger and raw subject matter.

Poor execution aside, are the plight of Afghanistan and the terror of September 11 really good starting points for a faux documentary? Director Christian Johnston and co-writer Christian van Gregg turn their good intentions into a series of bad moves. First, as Johnston has explained, they chose to make a fictional film due to fears that a documentary might not sell into the market, and that their important story might go unheard. Well, it's more than two years after shooting and the cultural oomph of the sly The Blair Witch Project has given way to popular real-life entries like Fahrenheit 9/11 and Spellbound.

Second, the filmmakers had a strong desire to illustrate the everyday life of Afghans, yet it never really comes to fruition. We see an uneven collage of interview snippets (all true-to-life) and some obvious opinions voiced by locals (including relatives of producer-actor Wali Razaqi), but we never see the world that Afghans inhabit. Too much time is spent on the "filmmaker" and his compulsion to get close to bin Laden.

Lastly, Johnston and van Gregg modeled the film's descent into no-turning-back territory after Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Not only is this overly ambitious conceptually but, um, it's already been done far better in a little film called Apocalypse Now, an epic that is still fresh in many moviegoers' minds, especially with its recent theatrical and DVD re-release.

By the time Larson gets close to the "front," so to speak, the mock camerawork has become annoying and atrocious, and the action, repetitive. The ending can't come soon enough, even with a conclusion that's easy to guess from way back in "Tape 4." It's a sad case of indie filmmakers who want to do something vital and lasting, but execute so poorly as to make their work merely forgettable.



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