One wag has already referred to this ersatz documentary about an American who travels to Afghanistan to join in the search for Al Quaeda as “The Osama Witch Project,” and that just about sums up both what the picture looks like and what’s wrong–very wrong–with it. First of all, the hand-held, fly-on-the-wall technique employed to give “September Tapes” a cheap sense of gritty verisimilitude has long since become commonplace, indeed almost hackneyed. But secondly, if you’re going to employ the approach, surely it shouldn’t be on a plot that’s so crass as to turn a national tragedy into a vehicle for almost campy melodramatics. There’s something deeply unseemly about this picture even though, within the limitations of the method, it’s well executed.
The premise is that a cache of video tapes has been found on the Afghan-Pakistani border documenting a completely unauthorized intrusion into the war zone by a driven guerilla filmmaker named Don Larson (George Calil), who’s accompanied by his interpreter Wali (Wali Razaqi) and cameraman Sunil Sadarangani. “Lars,” as Larson is called, seems from the beginning willing to take risks that the far more cautious Wali repeatedly advises against, with the result that during their stay in Kabul the men are threatened by a gang of arms merchants and Lars is briefly imprisoned. He makes a connection, however, with the shadowy network of a bounty hunter called Baba Jon, who’s about to begin an operation aimed at capturing or killing Bin Laden. The journey, however, proves disastrous. The American’s jeep is ambushed and a firefight follows. A member of the expedition is killed. The group spends a night with a band of mysterious villagers. And finally Lars catches up with his quarry in a dark cave.
From a purely technical perspective, writer-director Christian Johnston’s work has a visceral impact. His picture cannily conflates what appears to be documentary footage with staged scenes to create an authentic-feeling atmosphere of desolation and danger. But the overlay of Lars’s stilted, often mawkish narration works against the images, and when Johnston attempts to grab us with a “surprise” twist at the close, it turns out to be not only crudely manipulative but something that you will probably have expected all along. It makes the picture seem like little more than a prolonged set-up to a rather unsavory punch-line, though the intent is certainly not humorous.
In “September Tapes” Johnson certainly shows talent, daring and promise. But one has the nagging feeling they’ve been misapplied to a very bad idea.