A fictional New York-based documaker travels to Afghanistan determined to find Osama bin Laden in "September Tapes." Gritty, engaging pic, set in the summer of 2002, consists of eight videotapes that on-screen titles say were obtained from the Northern Alliance by soldiers at the Pakistan border.
Propelled by indignation, a fictional New York-based documaker travels to Afghanistan determined to find Osama bin Laden in “September Tapes.” Gritty, engaging pic, set in the summer of 2002, consists of eight videotapes that on-screen titles say were obtained from the Northern Alliance by soldiers at the Pakistan border. Even though some sticklers may consider the subject inappropriate for play-acting, one of the more intriguing pictures to use the events of Sept. 11, 2001, as direct inspiration should attract interest from battle enthusiasts and arthouse patrons alike upon Sept. 24 domestic release.
Pic initially premiered at Sundance in January in a version filmmakers claimed would subsequently be amended by footage allegedly confiscated by government authorities. Whether there’s some truth to that or it’s pure marketing chutzpah, venture as now presented is so craftily made that most viewers with no prior knowledge of the film would accept it as a documentary. For this sort of project that’s certainly a compliment.
“September Tapes” can be read as a straight adventure tale whose patina of constant unease has “Blair Witch” overtones. Or it can be taken as a metaphor for America’s brash plunge into the so-called War on Terror with little thought for the long-range consequences. In what appears to be the genuine combat-prone Afghan landscape, first-time feature helmer Christian Johnston sustains a jittery, you-are-there aura bolstered by non-stop urgency and bursts of outstandingly convincing pyrotechnics.
American documaker Don Larson (George Calil) — who prefers to be called Lars — joins forces with Farsi-speaking interpreter-cum-guide Wali Razaqi (Wali Zarif) and their brave but taciturn young cameraman Sunil (Sunil Sadarangani), who they call Sonny.
Lars distrusts what Americans are being told about the hunt for bin Laden and decides to tape his own first-person efforts to ferret out the truth about bin Laden’s location. Impatient and more than a little reckless, Lars thinks sheer determination can fill in for training, research and carefully cultivated contacts in the field — and to a point, that turns out to be true.
Wali admonishes Lars to keep his head down; Lars responds by deliberately getting arrested in Kabul on the theory he might glean useful information from other prisoners. Against the odds, he emerges alive with the name of a guy who might be able to steer them to bounty hunters determined to track bin Laden.
Pic’s ace in the hole is its extremely authentic feel when it comes to the landscape of Afghanistan and the people and perils one might encounter there. There’s not a micron of Toronto-fills-in-for-N.Y. here: It all feels real and dangerous. Because the stakes are high, so is the dramatic tension. A car crash and shootout in the street is just one stunning interlude that feels like the real deal.
Thoughtful melding of form and content is lensed with real verve but, for viewers alert to how films are made and what might or might not qualify as completely spontaneous dialogue, pic veers closer to too good — or too bad — to be true as the conclusion approaches. Like any effective suspenser, pic makes good use of the principle that what is merely suggested is often spookier than what is shown.
Print states that pic is in memory of Christian Van Gregg, credited as co-scripter and a producer.