Some fact, some fake

Times Staff Writer

The scene unfolds before a film crew shooting footage from a balcony overlooking a street in Kabul, Afghanistan's dusty capital. Suddenly, gunfire rings out below. Women scream. Men duck and run. The camera jerks to take in a darkly clad gunman opening fire on two cars, and the grim aftermath: One dead body is sprawled in a pool of blood; another is slumped behind the steering wheel.

"Where are the armed forces?" asks a shaken film crew member. "Where's the news? Where's CNN? I don't see them."

The footage, from a new film, "September Tapes," which opens Friday in Los Angeles, New York and other selected cities, has all the earmarks of a gritty documentary. It was shot on location in Afghanistan in the summer of 2002, just months after U.S. troops launched an invasion to crush the fundamentalist Taliban government and hunt for Al Qaeda terrorist Osama bin Laden. The Northern Alliance rebels are real, as are the Kabul police officers and other gun-toting Afghanis who appear on-screen.

Even the gunfire, the filmmakers say, is real.

But the aftermath of that shooting on a dusty Kabul street was fictionalized -- a few camera tricks and some sharp editing make it appear that the victims, Afghanis recruited for the film, were actually gunned down.

Like "The Blair Witch Project" a few years back, "September Tapes" is a documentary-style feature film that effectively uses a hand-held camera for a low-tech, run-and-gun look that elevates the tension while trying to blur the lines between fact and fiction. Culling the best that both these worlds have to offer was precisely the filmmakers' intention.

"It had sort of been brewing in the back of my mind to do a hybrid, to try to find some reason to go there," said Christian Johnston, 30, the director, co-screenwriter and cameraman.

"September Tapes" tells the story of Don Larson, a young American devastated by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks who travels to Kabul to make a documentary about bounty hunters who are seeking to capture Bin Laden for the $25-million reward.

It is a story-within-a-story, in which the filmmakers -- a five-man American crew -- spent a month in Afghanistan even as assassinations, bombings and military skirmishes were unfolding across that war-ravaged land.

The making of "September Tapes" might be one of the stranger stories to come out of the Afghan conflict.

It is difficult to ascertain how much real danger the filmmakers faced. To hear them tell it, they had guns pointed at their heads at a roadside checkpoint, they hid in the trunk of a car while following a bounty hunter to Khost on the Pakistan border for fear of being kidnapped, and once, someone targeted them with a red laser beam as they stood on the roof of a building.

"Every day you felt this immense stress," recalled Johnston. "We'd get held at gunpoint during a negotiation scene over the merchandise we were trying to get for the production."

Producer and actor Wali Razaqi, 25, who also served as guide and translator for the film team, added:

"Our waiter [who] served us breakfast in the morning, he got murdered right there in the hotel" at which they were staying.

Peter Bergen, a journalist and author of the book "Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden," saw an advance screening of "September Tapes" last week in Washington, D.C., and came away liking the film.

"They showed a lot of [courage] doing this film," Bergen said. "Just making a film in Afghanistan shows a lot of fortitude. The logistics, the hassles. You've got power blackouts all the time. I think they did an honorable job."

What concerns Bergen about the film, though, is how it is marketed.

"They have to make a decision on how they are presenting it," he said. "It's either a documentary or completely a work of fiction. There were people at the screening I attended who didn't understand it was a work of fiction."

Along with conventional advertising, First Look Pictures and ThinkFilm concocted a fake character named "E. Bruderton" who had uncovered some mysterious war footage of young Americans apparently being attacked by rebels in Afghanistan. "Bruderton" placed movie footage on the Internet and then tried to create buzz by asking Web surfers if they could identify where the footage took place.

The filmmakers ascribe earnest reasons for making the movie.

"Our goal was to shed light on the hunt [for Bin Laden], how effective it is, why it's difficult," said Razaqi, whose family fled Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation when he was 9 months old.

Recruited for the role of Larson was actor George Calil, whose previous credits include the A&E; movie "The Lost Battalion" and HBO's "Band of Brothers." The guerrilla-style film crew also included co-writer Christian Van Gregg and Kevin Moller, a photographer and friend of Johnston.

Razaqi said they got the idea for the film after Sept. 11, when he and Johnston were working on a small action film being shot at the airport in Camarillo.

"We were supposed to be blowing up cars and shooting guns on Sept. 11," Razaqi recalled, "and all of a sudden [the terrorists struck]. You can imagine the tension."

Razaqi said because his father had originally been from Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold, he already had a Taliban-issued passport, which he used to enter Afghanistan one week ahead of the other filmmakers. Johnston would say only that he and the rest of the team got into the country by managing to obtain some "U.N. journalist passes" that "may have not been valid."

"When I arrived, one week ahead of Christian, everything started backfiring," Razaqi said. "There were no Americans to be found anywhere. We saw some international security [forces], German and French, on tanks, but I didn't feel comfortable approaching tanks. Then my family said, 'You are family and we love you, we'll protect you, but we can't have Americans coming in and out of our house. If people see that, they might think something, you know?' "

So, working out of the Mustafa Hotel, they began the film, which was largely unscripted.

In one scene, for example, the camera is rolling as Calil and Razaqi are in a car driving through Kabul. As they try to race off from the police, they are pursued and pulled from their car, when a scuffle breaks out.

Razaqi noted that one of the pursuing policemen was actually Kabul's police chief, who knew it was all for a film being made and was playing along.

But bystanders didn't know, he said, and began circling the men, believing that they were defying the police.

"That's a perfect example of what it's like to shoot a movie in Afghanistan," Razaqi said.

Calil was whisked off to jail where, Johnston and Razaqi noted, he had a hidden camera.

"So, he just started talking to the camera, expressing what he was going through," Razaqi said.

They said they hope to include the jail footage in a behind-the-scenes documentary being considered for the DVD release.

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