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Septem8er Tapes Review

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by Chris McEneany Dec 1, 2005

    Well, I have to confess that I had absolutely no idea what this film was about prior to its arrival for review. So, the first thing I did was view the trailer - the only extra available on the disc - and I was instantly hooked. In fact, galvanised into watching it, more like. There was something so immediate and ominous about the subject matter, and the way in which it was presented, that made me look forward to, and dread in equal measure, what I was in store for.

    “Just make sure you pack your bullet-proof vest.”

    Purporting to be the evidence found on eight videotapes retrieved from the area of the last known battle between Osama bin Laden and rebel/allied forces in an obscure Taliban stronghold in Southern Afghanistan, the September Tapes chronicle the desperate, and foolhardy, mission of American ex-soldier Don Larson as he attempts to hunt down those responsible for the 9/11 Twin Towers atrocity, documenting his risky odyssey via film and voice recordings. Using a trusted guide, a loyal cameraman and contacts on the ground of progressively more dubious character, the patriotic, and obsessive, American treks across the militia and terrorist controlled badlands encountering corrupt officials, gung-ho Northern Alliance generals, ferocious bandits and gunmen and, ultimately, his prime target in the desolate caves of the rocky wilderness. Shot with shaky, handheld cameras, Larson's documentary is a raw and frightening glimpse into a society that lives by the sword, the gun and the bomb and is the first feature film shot in an active war zone, certainly the first produced by a westerner in this volatile trouble-spot. And, for the first half hour, I fell for it, hook, line and sinker. As I said at the beginning, I had never heard of this film before and, quite obviously, had no idea what to expect. The only shame about reviewing it, however, is that I will have to let the cat out of the bag if I am to proceed any further. You see, far from being the hard-hitting documentary that the blurb on the box, the trailer and, indeed, the first third of the film would have you believe, September Tapes is actually just a well-acted and put-together reality TV-style drama, all the makers have done is substitute bin Laden for the Blair Witch. Canny and clever, with that lost tapes vibe even harking back to the likes of Cannibal Holocaust. But this is certainly a helluva lot more engrossing than either of those two particular piles of dross, I must add.

    “Anything we get will be more than I've seen on TV.”

    So, Larson - who it will only become apparent is being played George Calil come the end credits - goes on a personal quest to discover not exactly why the terrorist attacks took place, but rather who perpetrated them, and his reasons for doing so will become quite obvious to anyone who has ever seen Rambo in action, the emotional edge to his hunt also becoming the film's own Achilles heel. But the first stages of his mission really do seem like a genuine documentary, a fly-on-the-wall expose of the extremely dangerous state of Afghanistan's battered infrastructure. His guide, a Muslim American national called Wali Zariff who knows the area and has relatives there, acts as his conduit to the underworld, arranging meetings and helping Larson unearth the truth. Played with a staggering amount of conviction by Wali Razaqi, it soon becomes clear that he is in at least as much danger as his friend, that incredibly conspicuous American wandering about a terrorist hotbed with about as much idea of blending in as a nude nymphomaniac in a monastery. And the situations that they find themselves in, often looking down the wrong end of an AK-47 are wholly terrifying and convincingly portrayed. At least, initially, they are. The sudden drive-by shooting that takes place in a street beside where they are filming had me literally jumping out of my seat, so abruptly shocking and nasty it is. A meeting with Wali's sympathetic cousins degenerates into an argument regarding the perceived motives for terrorists murdering thousands of innocent lives, resulting in Larson storming out onto the streets at night after the dreaded curfew, Wali and cameraman, Sonny, trailing behind him in panic. Even this seemed real to me. Likewise, the ill-advised contact with a gunrunner/informant a little later on, that possesses a keen, in-your-face intensity that will have the heart pounding. It is clever stuff, filmed and played with total attention to documentary-realism. The arguing, the threats, the sudden violent flare-ups and the jostling of the camera all conspire to keep you on the edge of your seat because it really seems like poor Larson and company are getting truly out of their depth and moving deeper and deeper into territory through which no sane man would dare venture. The sense that something horrible could happen to them at any moment is palpable and extreme, the threat all around them all too prevalent and overt. Now, this is investigative journalism, folks. Perhaps this is why the U.S. Department Of Defence wanted to suppress the film, as the back of the box states. Hmmm ... I wonder.

    “It's like the Wild West - everyone's carrying a Kalashnikov.”

    Larson's hate-fuelled quest lands him in more trouble as the drama unfolds, supplying us with the clues that all is not quite as it seems. Whilst it is kind of cool to see one man fighting his corner with simple, yet wholly justified, rage on his side, it quickly becomes unbelievable once he obtains a weapon and the trio are then allowed to tag along with an infamous bounty hunter and his band of desert warriors when they set off for a fateful ambush on Osama bin Laden, himself. If the fact that all these bizarre characters seem a little too blasé about having a camera thrust in their faces doesn't tip you off, then the epic gunfight our heroes find themselves involved in will lift you straight out of the documentary with quite unceremonious ease. The fierce attack in a dilapidated shanty town in Khost is dramatic and exciting, with visceral, breath-snatching footage captured of what amounts to complete chaos - grenades, rockets and severely pounding machine-gunfire plunging us violently into pure Black Hawk Down territory. Larson returns fire and kills an Al-Qaeda trooper, possibly two, as he, Wali and Sonny have to duck and dive over rubble and through bombed-out buildings, even hacking their way through dry-stone walls Zulu-style in an effort to break out of the trap closing in around them. All very intense, all very well choreographed with that “Keep the camera rolling!” mentality but, sadly, if you've been intrigued and riveted up to this point then I'm afraid September Tapes may well lose you here. So much of the footage suddenly seems too well done, far too accomplished and dynamic for the young, smiley cameraman to have attained. Sir Ridley Scott must surely have been passing by during the filming and stopped to lend a hand. It is a frantic episode of wildly kinetic lensing, blistering action and a truly suspenseful riot of hyper-violence. Realistic, oh yes, but convincing it most certainly isn't, and no amount of spinning, energetic camerawork and frantic dialogue can inform you it is otherwise. There is also an appalling moment when Wali listens to Larson's secret voice-tapes that comes over with such bogus emphasis that any subsequent attempts at realism are totally hamstrung. The point of no return for the makers and their neat charade.

    “It's almost like you want something bad to happen.”

    It's one thing to shoot documentary-style, but quite another to maintain the act that this for real. The characters' reactions to it all - the attempts on their lives, the incredible moment when a US warplane drops a bomb on their vehicle and the later scenes of complete and utter farce when they are engaged in ferocious cave-warfare - belong in a different movie altogether, thus practically ruining the atmosphere that the docu-drama had so diligently strived for, and actually managed to set up earlier on. September Tapes ultimately fails when it pushes its own boundaries too far and sinks into deplorable melodrama. I totally enjoyed - and partly bought into - the first half of the story and genuinely thought that I was in for a good, constructive work of cutting-edge investigative journalism. The crew are at pains to capture the gritty realism of life on the dangerous streets of Kabul, and they do attain an incredible flavour of such a troubled and cutthroat society, even skilfully striking a uniquely unbiased stance in the depiction of such an extremist culture - at least, at first, anyway. We understand Larson's anger and, later on, his desperate need for vengeance, yet the locals' vastly different take on the events that have spurred him into action are neatly and accurately portrayed also. Scenes of the frightening lack of trust between the various factions at loggerheads in Afghanistan, especially at the presence of an American in their midst, dovetail poetically with moments of mutual respect and understanding, like when Larson plays soccer with some kids, or hands out chocolate bars. Some of these sequences are undoubtedly real and it is a fact, as I've since discovered, that a lot of the film really does take place in Afghanistan - which obviously goes to prove the vividness of the atmosphere the creators have concocted. So, a lot of credit must be given for their bravery, even if it wasn't tested by the true fire-fight and knife-point scenarios that they throw across the screen.

    “I must tell you ... the US Government is not serious about capturing him (Osama bin Laden). Several times they could've killed him, but they didn't.”

    I don't doubt that many of the people being interviewed during the early portion of the drama are really Afghan contacts on the ground, either. The scene involving the commanders of the Northern Alliance has some digitally obscured faces, and looking in the cast credits at the end reveals that some of them are actually playing themselves ... so, fact and fiction seem to be coalescing in September Tapes. But the makers quite clearly want to have their cake and eat it too, and what could have been a good, constructive examination of America's disastrous foreign policies in the region is unfortunately allowed to devolve into a sub-par, one-man-army action-fest that becomes as lowly as one of those ten-a-penny Rambo-riffs from the mid-eighties. Though video-gamers may find a nice nod to first-person shoot-'em-ups come the bizarre finale. Even a painfully poignant footnote that brings a kind of sense to all this carnage seems a little ill-at-ease. The makers actually appear to have used some very authentic motives to enact their own little knee-jerk response to the war on terror, and whilst Larson's death-or-glory approach to payback is something I totally applaud - if someone murdered one of my loved ones, be they car-jacker, terrorist or the Devil, himself, nothing in Heaven or Hell would stop me from destroying them - it sits very uncomfortably in the form of a documentary. However, when viewed as the grassroots anger of a nation living in fear, September Tapes seems not only boundlessly heroic, but also strangely heart-warming.

    I'm actually very tempted to recommend this film, if only to hear somebody else's reaction to it. The climax is staggering in many ways and, having watched it twice now, I still can't make my mind up whether it is totally bonkers and absurd, or actually quite ingenious. The writers and producers - some of them being the cast, as well - have undoubtedly made a bold statement with September Tapes, but its semi-documentary tone, albeit intelligently achieved, is also its downfall. Still, as it stands, this is much, much better than the likes of The Blair Witch Project, which was just “You've Been Framed” with the laughter track removed.