New on DVD: OBL

A high-definition version of Osama's "smoking gun" videotape offers extra footage, amusing bloopers and helpful technical information.

Published December 18, 2001 9:30PM (EST)

Less than a week after the bin Laden video was made public, U.S. officials have uncovered a DVD version of the tape. The videodisc, said to have been seized from a Taliban safe house in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, offers even more conclusive proof of bin Laden's role in the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Unlike the grainy, often inaudible bin Laden videotape, the DVD version features a crisp, high-definition picture and a crystal-clear Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround soundtrack.

"Regardless of the format, this DVD clearly demonstrates bin Laden's callous disregard for human life," Secretary of State Colin Powell said. "But I have to admit he did a really nice job of cleaning up the sound. It really sparkles."

The bin Laden DVD contains several extras not found on the original videotape, including more than 30 minutes of never-before-seen footage. One segment shows additional footage of the visit to the site of a downed U.S. helicopter in Ghazni province, with a commentary track providing technical details of the aircraft. The helicopter scene, which in the original video was sandwiched between two segments featuring bin Laden, has been moved to the beginning of the DVD, clearly the director's original intent. Other scenes include footage of bin Laden's entire meal with the Saudi sheik (including appetizer), and an extended "dream sequence" featuring digitally animated renderings of the dreams and visions described by the participants.

Besides restoring the video to its original "director's cut," the DVD also contains a 20-minute featurette, "The Making of the bin Laden Video." The segment takes viewers behind the scenes, with bin Laden himself providing commentary about the challenges the video team faced shooting in Afghanistan. At one point, tribal warlords brandishing AK-47s hold up the production until they are guaranteed a percentage of all future DVD sales. Bin Laden appears relaxed during the commentary, sharing thoughts and anecdotes about the production, as well as technical information.

The final segment on the disc features various outtakes and bloopers left off the video. In one scene, bin Laden repeatedly mispronounces the name "Mohammed," each time collapsing in helpless laughter. Another shows bin Laden, apparently unaware that the camera is rolling, spilling food on his lap and then wiping it up with his turban.

The technical sophistication of the DVD has raised concern in the Pentagon. Defense officials say it's clear bin Laden has access to state of the art postproduction facilities offering color correcting, scratch removal, audio sweetening and digital matting. The disc's audio track, able to be switched to any of 15 languages, suggests bin Laden intended the disc to play to a worldwide audience for propaganda purposes. Some say the terrorist leader could not have produced the DVD without outside help.

"There's only one place bin Laden could have gotten such advanced postproduction technology, and that's Iraq," said former CIA Director James Woolsey. "This is all the evidence we need to level Baghdad."

But terrorism experts say bin Laden could have obtained the technology from disaffected Russian filmmakers unable to find work after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Others speculate that bin Laden may have had help from America, pointing to tiny lettering on the rim of the DVD that reads "Copyright 2001, AOL Time Warner." An AOL Time Warner spokesperson vehemently denied that the company had anything to do with the bin Laden DVD, calling such speculation "the work of infidels."

While the DVD is being viewed by American officials as even more conclusive proof of bin Laden's guilt, the reaction throughout the Mideast has been one of outright skepticism. Many Arabs say the DVD doesn't provide conclusive evidence of bin Laden's guilt, and may even have been fabricated.

"How could bin Laden possibly get access to Dolby Surround Sound technology?" asked Abdullah Alkam, a Palestinian sitting with friends at an East Jerusalem coffeehouse. "This is a Hollywood trick."

The bin Laden DVD is currently being featured as a free download on America Online.

By Tom Mcnichol

Tom McNichol is a San Francisco writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, and on public radio's "Marketplace" and "All Things Considered." He is a contributing editor for Wired magazine.

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