Though director Christian Johnston uses actual footage from a recent trip he took to war-torn Afghanistan, his narrative (co-written with Christian Van Gregg) for September Tapes is fictionalized: American journalist-filmmaker Don Larson (George Calil) joins a translator, Wali Zarif (Wali Razaqi), and a cameraman, Sonny (Sunil Sadarangani), on a trek into Afghanistan one year after the September 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. Originally, Larson wants to do a story on the bounty hunters tracking Osama bin Laden, who is supposedly hiding in Afghanistan.
But as Larson continues on his quest, he finds additional revealing information about the U.S. war on terror and encounters hostility from various factions, including government officials who jail him and confiscate some of his video tapes, the brutal Taliban fighters who engage in constant battles, and even civilians who simply dislike Americans. At the end of his harrowing journey, Larson pays the price for his intrusive foray.
There is nothing wrong with director Johnston's hybridization of fact and fiction-after all, by their nature as films, documentaries have to fudge facts to some degree. Moreover, several excellent war docu-dramas have found higher truths through the deliberate mixing of narrative conventions and cinma-vrit (most notably Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers and many Italian neorealist dramas).
What is offensive and disturbing about September Tapes is that Johnston exploits his topic (the war) for more personal self-aggrandizement. What could have been an interesting modern-day Heart of Darkness turns into a showpiece for the filmmaker to fool audiences into thinking they are seeing something profound-and uber-realistic.
In fact, little about September Tapes seems real-despite the use of the authentic on-location shooting. At just the moment a guide tells Larson he is "playing with his life" by pursuing his film project, the guide is instantly killed by a sniper. Obviously, Christian has edited together the line and the murder for maximum impact, and it smacks of Hollywood-style sensationalism. Likewise, Calil (one of the film's producers) plays Larson as a hotheaded idiot with Actors Studio affectations, hardly the demeanor for a shrewd reporter. In real life, such a person would be killed on the spot for his obnoxious transgressions in this unfriendly territory. Even the shakiness of the camera seems falsely excessive, as if Christian (who manned the camera) thought more shaking would translate as greater realism.
Finally, there are no truths, higher or lower, in September Tapes…just a lot of din.