September Tapes

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 01/24/05 22:02:33

"Wanna see a detestable, jingoist mockumentary about terrorism? Me neither."
1 stars (Sucks)

The late great Gene Siskel had an oft-repeated question to ask of movies, one I find myself using here. Namely, "is this movie more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?" Which can then be spun off to ask, is this movie better than a documentary of its making? It’s this second version of the question that kept coming to mind while watching “September Tapes” and the making-of short that accompanies it on the DVD. And the short answer is: no.

The long answer: To make a film about post-9/11 Afghanistan in general and an American’s journey into a war zone in specific, filmmaker Christian Johnson managed to get himself and a crew of actors and technicians into Afghanistan in 2002, at the height of the war - an effort both dangerous and insane. It’s also slightly remarkable, a tricky bit of life-risking that winds up revealing up-close portions of our globe that don’t wind up on the evening news. We see Kabul from street level, getting a chance to see how these people live their daily lives.

Why, then, go to all this effort to make... a fake documentary? You kinda figure, hey, you’re over there, you want to show us what it’s like, why not just turn on the camera and ask the locals some questions? But no, Johnson and his pals wanted instead to go halfway around the world in order to churn out what is - and it pains me to think they though this would sound good - “The Blair Witch Hunts For Bin Laden.”

Yes, folks, Johnson manages to get real Afghans to participate in a mockumentary about an American filmmaker (George Calil) who, distraught over his wife’s death on September 11, sells everything he owns, sneaks into Afghanistan, and tries to find the world’s most wanted terrorist all by himself. Oh, and the whole thing kicks off with some dumbass disclaimer about how the footage you’re about to see was found hidden on the Pakistani border.

It’s bad stuff, to be sure, but more than that, it’s crass, tasteless, shameful. Any attempts to get to the heart of the issues - scenes stop in order to discuss the rationale behind Mid Eastern terrorism and its effects on the region - get shoved aside, no matter how important they were a few minutes ago, just so the Brave American Filmmaker can pick up a gun and shove it up baddies’ asses. (Worse, in an effort to emulate the look of video games, one late first-person scene finds our hero carrying a machine gun in both hands, forcing us to ask, hey, who’s holding the camera?)

This is a sloppy attempt at Important Filmmaking. Here was a great chance for the filmmakers to bring up all the big questions being asked following 9/11, and instead they blew it by playing Cowboys and Indians in the deserts of a nation that was actually at war. (Seriously, how tacky is it to fake a battle scene in a place where the real stuff was blowing up on a regular basis?) It’s a mockumentary that not once convinces us it’s for real, with bad acting and preposterous plotting that become more annoying with each passing scene. Oh, and everyone involved thinks they’re making the modern-day “Apocalypse Now,” meaning the whole thing’s given an artsy, extra-serious feel that just kills whatever credibility the movie had left.

“September Tapes” (or, if you want to be a douche about the pretentious spelling in the closing credits, “Septem8er Tapes” - a spelling that strains to be clever, only to fail miserably) is a great waste. It’s jingoist machismo disguised as deep insight. If you must rent the DVD, be sure to watch the behind-the-scenes footage, then wonder why the movie wasn’t nearly as interesting. But really, don’t rent the DVD. Just save your five bucks, or check out “Osama” instead.

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