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'Tapes' has nerve but little nuance

As bad ideas for movies go, a "Blair Witch"-style fake documentary set in a post-9/11 hot spot ranks pretty high. But while the gimmick behind "September Tapes" tramples the line between high concept and poor taste, the movie itself has a nerve that's rare in indie filmmaking, let alone mainstream movies. The film eventually collapses under the weight of its no-budget arrogance, but it goes some interesting places beforehand.

Such as Afghanistan during the US invasion of 2002. An opening title card informs us we're about to watch eight videotapes that were discovered in the aftermath of a firefight on the border with Pakistan. Again, this is pure Blair Witchery aimed at credulous saps in the audience. Directed by Christian Johnston from a script he co-wrote with Christian Van Gregg, the wholly fictional "September Tapes" purports to be the video diary of one Don "Lars" Larsen (George Calil), an American journalist who has traveled to Afghanistan on his own dime six months after 9/11 to locate Osama bin Laden and interview him.

With Lars are his guide-interpreter Wali (Wali Razaqi, who also produced), and his cameraman Sunny (Sunil Sadarangani), rarely glimpsed since everything we see is from his POV. While the stop-and-start hand-held camerawork is meant to seem realistic in the extreme, it feels more like the work of professionals playing hard at being amateurs -- and indeed, a glance at Johnston's resume reveals he's a graduate of USC film school who has made TV spots, music videos, and an "alternative commercial" for McDonald's, an oxymoron if ever there was one.

From Kabul, the crew heads south toward the mountains and the reputed stronghold of bin Laden, encountering official and unofficial hostility every step of the way: arrests, arguments, random gunfire. This may be because Lars seems absurdly hotheaded for a journalist; it's giving nothing away to say there are other agendas afoot. In this context (and before one final twist), Wali the guide becomes the more sympathetic figure: an Americanized Afghani who's just trying to keep this madman and himself alive. It helps that Razaqi gives an actual performance while Calil rarely finds a groove other than blowhard intensity.

"September Tapes" has no context beyond the politics of anger, but it sometimes works in spite of itself. The further the three go toward the border, tagging along with a bounty hunter named Babak and dodging the Taliban, the further they seem to leave civilization behind. Rocket tracers erupt from faraway hills; camels loom out of the dark, glowing green in night-vision photography; at times the film itself seems to be breaking down into anarchy. "Tapes" taps into an old literary masochism, that of Western man increasingly losing his bearings as he heads upriver toward the heart of darkness.

By tying such a narrative to 9/11, though, "September Tapes" cheapens it. You also sense that the story behind the screen was more interesting than the one in front of it. Johnston and his cast and crew traveled to Afghanistan to film during a time of great chaos, and much of what Lars goes through they seem to have too. Is it possible to admire their gumption and still be slightly appalled at the shallowness of what they brought back?

Ty Burr can be reached at

September Tapes

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