September Tapes (IMDB), directed by Christian Johnston, is one of the most fascinating and bizarre films I’ve seen in some time, even if I also regard it as severely flawed. If the film were to be pitched in a Player-style meeting, it could be described as The Blair Witch Project meets Apocalypse Now set in Afghanistan. But as fascinating as I find the film, the making of the film is even more compelling.
The film itself is a mockumentary, opening Blair Witch style, with titles that indicate that we’re watching some film footage found by the Northern Allince near the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. We then see footage of New York-based documentary filmmaker, Don “Lars” Larson (if I were the Yankee ballplayer, I’d sue), who travels to Afghanistan to find out the “real” story about Osama bin Laden. He arrives in Kabul with his translator, Wali, and his camera operator, Sonny, and proceeds to explore the city in search of the famed terrorist. Lars gradually finds himself drawn into the hunt for bin Laden (hence the Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness connection), buying guns from arms dealers and breaking curfew to get interviews that might lead him to bin Laden. Eventually, Lars, disappointed with the slow pace of the search, gets himself arrested and thrown into a Kabul prison in order to find contacts that might lead him to bounty hunters searching for bin Laden. He eventually meets Babak, who leads him and his crew deep into the Afghani contryside right to the border with Pakistan.
What makes this narrative interesting, in part, is the fact that September Tapes was filmed almost entirely on location in Afghanistan, in and around Kabul in late 2002, during a moment when there was still a rumored bounty on the heads of American citizens. Fleeting shots of women show them still wearing burqas out of fear that the Taliban will regain power. Footage of bomb-damaged buildings suggest the destruction of a country that has been at war for most of the last 25 years. Many of the participants in the film were, in fact, members of the Kabul police force and men who had fought against the Taliban.
This material, in itself, is fascinating. The mockumentary genre is clearly an implicit critique of the “embedded reporters” who covered the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lars, who often comes across as a stereotypical cowboy-Rambo American, is sometimes criticized by the film, particulalry when he is dismissive of Wali’s assertion that the World Trade Center attacks are in part the response to US foreign policy. These fleeting political references, however, are never really developed, and the film becomes a quest narrative, in which Lars is “inexplicably” drwan deeper into the hunt for Osama bin Laden, to the point that he carries an AK-47, which he shoots into the night sky (the night vision footage adds a surreal quality to Lars’ behavior). I use scare quotes here because I felt that Lars’ purpose for going into Kabul was telegraphed from the opening scene of the film, in which Lars mentions his wife, Sarah, who is revealed to have died in one of the planes that was hijacked by the terrorists. Including a recorded phone message from her, essentially her dying words, at the end of the film cheapened everything that came before, making the filmmaker’s behavior a bit too obvious in motivation.
September Tapes has been widely criticized by film critics, including Jonathan Curiel of the San Francisco Chronicle, who apparently didn’t recognize the cues identifying the film as a mockumentary before criticizing the film for exploiting the conditions in Afghanistan for the sake of provocation:
Though the movie contains some sensitive images of Afghan kids and others, and though the film was apparently made with the consent of some Afghans, “September Tapes” never edifies, never humanizes, never entertains and never says anything new or interesting. Afghanistan shouldn’t be used as a backdrop for some director’s selfish attempt at provocation. Real Americans and real Afghans are still dying in Afghanistan. We don’t need to see a fake version of that on the big screen.
While I had similar thoughts about September Tapes, I felt that the film’s attempts to deconstruct the sobriety of the documentary and news media forms were much needed, even though Lars’ behavior often seemed inexplicable or unmotivated (he spoke absolutely no Farsi and assumed that the people of Afghanistan speak “Afghani,” to name one example). In addition, the use of non-professional actors and unscripted scenes often led to many important perceptions about the situation in Afghanistan to emerge over the course of the film. The film is most certainly flawed, and can be seen as “trivializing” its subject, but as a representation of the “war on terror,” it’s certainly a fascinating document.