Film Review: September Tapes

12:07:16 PM
09 2004

Film Review: September Tapes

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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - A "Blair Witch Project" set in post-Sept. 11 Afghanistan, "September Tapes" purposely blurs the lines between fact and fiction (complete with an online stealth marketing campaign).

The film's faux-documentary conceit presents eight videotapes that ostensibly fell into the hands of the Northern Alliance. Actual footage of Afghanistan makes it an interesting experiment, but as a dramatic thriller, the story of an American documaker is not as taut or compelling as it could be; instead, it's often confusing and irritating.

In limited release through First Look Pictures in association with ThinkFilm, writer-director-producer Christian Johnston's unusual dramatization of the war on terrorism could drum up a modicum of curiosity among art-house filmgoers.

The events unfold in July 2002, when New York filmmaker Don Larson (George Calil) sells everything and goes to Afghanistan, determined to find those responsible for the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Through interviews, he expects to move up the chain of command to Osama bin Laden himself.

He's arrived days after the assassination of Afghan vice president Haji Abdul Qadir, and Kabul feels like a rebel-strewn Wild West. U.S. tanks are on the streets, but AK-47s are everywhere, and al-Qaida and the Taliban are still very much alive and well. Helping "Lars" navigate the territory is Afghan-American Wali Zarif (Kabul-born Wali Razaqi), who makes it clear that he can translate Farsi but can't protect Lars from the dangerous situations he seems to seek. Key among these is an attempted transaction with a black-market weapons dealer that quickly turns into a tense showdown.

While cameraman Sonny (Sunil Sadarangani) records them, Lars and Wali argue over immediate life-and-death matters as well as more cerebral issues. Lars is uninterested in the role of history, political policy or philosophy in the terrorist equation; the manhunt is his sole concern.

The trio moves toward the Pakistani border in search of the Afghan bounty hunters who are tracking bin Laden, each mile away from Kabul more treacherous than the last. With his healthy flight instinct, Wali is reactive in a way that most viewers will identify with. Lars, on the other hand, is something of a loose cannon. His affectless voice-over and increasing recklessness offer evidence of an insane obsession -- emblematic, no doubt, of events beyond the character's experience.

As with "Blair Witch," Johnston's rough-hewn handheld footage generates a sense of dread as a defining force behind the camera, more concrete than any onscreen images. "Tapes" concludes not with a moment of deepening mystery but with a credible psychological explanation for one man's foolhardy pursuit of truth -- which could make viewers wish there had been a higher level of suspense propelling the story. Spare, effective use of Gunnard Doboze's plaintive music serves as counterpoint to the purposely jerky camerawork.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter


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