Movie Review: The Kite Runner

A sneak peak at the upcoming film and what its aftermath says about the current health of the Afghan nation.

by John C. Snider © 2007

Khaled Hosseini‘s The Kite Runner is one of the most talked-about books in recent years.  Not only is it a heartbreaking story of childhood tragedy, this 2003 novel provides an invaluable insight into the culture of late 20th century Afghanistan – the culture that would trigger 9/11 and plunge the globe into a bitter, and likely-to-be-protracted, conflict.

Hosseini’s book wasn’t particularly controversial, but controversy has most definitely found the movie adaptation, directed by Marc Foster (Monsters’ Ball, Finding Neverland, Stay, Stranger than Fiction, and the as-yet-unnamed Bond 22), with screenplay by David Benioff (25th Hour, Troy, Stay).  Filmed in the western Chinese province of Kashgar, the film is notable for its multi-ethnic cast, including three young Afghan boys who are now at the center of a media storm.  More on them later.

The movie begins in the late 70s in pre-Soviet-invasion Afghanistan, and ends at the height of the Taliban regime, in the months just prior to the World Trade Center attacks.  The story centers first on the relationship between two young boys named Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) and Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada).  Amir is the son of a well-to-do father (Homayon Ershadi) who is thoroughly pro-Western, scoffing at the bearded mullahs who preach hatred in the mosques, and understandably concerned about Communist troublemakers and the possibility of Soviet invasion.  Hassan is the son of the household servant and a “Hazara”.  (Although the film doesn’t delve into this, Hazaras are a Shia ethnic minority in Afghanistan, as opposed to the majority Sunni Pashtuns, from whose ranks the Taliban rose to power.)  Amir and Hassan are bosom companions, despite the snickering of the neighborhood children.

And then an event occurs which drives a wedge between Amir and Hassan.  Amir reacts with fear and shame, and when he and his father flee Afghanistan after the Russian intervention, Amir harbors intense guilt, believing he will never have an opportunity to make right the things he has done wrong.  The movie’s second act shifts the focus to the relationship between the adult Amir (Khalid Abdalla) and his father, who, along with a small but tight-knit refugee community, struggle to make ends meet in the United States.

The Kite Runner is an emotional and wonderfully made film – the title refers to the unusual tradition in Afghanistan in which two-man teams of kite-flyers compete in what can only be described as kite dogfights, the aim of which is to maneuver beneath an opponent and cut his line.  The “runner” who first finds the downed kite can keep it as his own.  Kite-flying was one of the many cultural activities banned by the Taliban.

The film’s dialogue shifts readily between English and what I assume is Persian (I’m no expert, so forgive me if I am mistaken).  I mention this merely because it makes it difficult to judge the performances of the actors, particularly the children, who speak exclusively in Persian.  Star Khalid Abdalla (who played the lead terrorist in the harrowing United 93) does a fine job, but most noteworthy is the performance of Homayon Ershadi, who portray’s Amir’s father “Baba” first as an aristocratic widower worrying over the future of his young son, and later as a dying expatriate who has scratched and clawed his way to what might charitably be described as “lower-middle-class” in America.  It’s a great match of actor with role and I hope Ershadi is rewarded for his performance.  The only strong criticism that could be levied against the film is in the prologue, which features weak and cliched dialogue.  All told, however, The Kite Runner is a powerful and illuminating film well-worth a trip to the theatre – the cinematography takes full advantage of the breathtaking mountain ranges of Central Asia.

Analysis: The Aftermath of The Kite Runner & the State of Modern Afghanistan

The movie touches on a number of relevant issues; the role of shame and honor in traditional Afghan society; the destruction of the progressive movement in Afghanistan under the shockingly brutal Taliban; and the ethically ambiguous status of the expatriate community, who find no easy answer to the question “Where were you?” asked by those who had no choice but to stay put when their country almost literally went to hell.

One issue the filmmakers may not have foreseen is the reaction of today’s Afghan people to the movie.  It’s been six years since the Taliban regime was toppled, and while some political and military progress has been made, it is incremental at best.  The last year or so has seen a definite resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and an increasing frustration and resentment of US/NATO troops by the general population.

Perhaps it was unavoidable, but the current Afghan regime, headed by pro-Western president Hamid Karzai, is established under a new constitution that loses no time in declaring “Afghanistan is an Islamic republic.”  Our grand allies in Iraq have done the same thing: “Islam is the official religion of the [Iraqi] State and it is a fundamental source of legislation.”  This ensures that both nations are inherently schizophrenic – I am convinced that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with republican democracy.

Saying you’re a democracy isn’t the same as being one.  And I doubt the current resident of the White House really understands the difference between “democracy” and constitutional republicanism in which personal freedoms and basic human rights are enforced despite the public will.

In Afghanistan, Karzai is essentially unable to enforce Western values in any meaningful way.  Take the case of Abdul Rahman.  He’s the Afghani who converted to Christianity from Islam, and was sentenced to death by an Afghan high court in 2006 for apostasy.  That’s 2006 – under the rule of Hamid Karzai, under the new constitution.

So who comes to the rescue of Abdul Rahman?  Not the US.  Not the Karzai government.  The Italians offer Rahman asylum, and after the Afghan courts threw out his case on a technicality, he was released from custody and whisked away to Italy.  The moral of the story: Non-Islamic citizens must flee the country rather than rely on their new pro-Western government for protection.

Rahman isn’t the only Afghan who will need to find a new place to live.   There is only one known Jew in the whole country (although to be fair their numbers greatly dwindled well before the current government came to power).  Still, it does bespeak the level of intolerance within Afghan society – can you imagine any Jew that would want to, or be allowed to immigrate there?

[Spoilers ahead – you’ve been warned!]

But I digress.  Let’s return our attention to The Kite Runner.  At least some of the three child stars – Zekeria Ebrahimi, Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada, and Ali Dinesh – are no longer safe in their own country.  Not because they participated in a Western film (although I’m sure it hasn’t won them any friends), but because of the taboo subject matter addressed by the film; namely, child rape.  One has to wonder what the filmmakers were thinking when they got native Afghan children involved in this movie – any fool could have told them it would cause problems.  Afghanistan is one of many places in the world in which honor killings are not uncommon.  Rape is a particular taboo – not just committing it, but even speaking of it, or worse, being the victim of it.  By helping stage a scene of child rape (one that is, it must be said, as tastefully done as one can do such a thing) Mahmidzada especially has acquired the stigma, one so intense that the release of the film has been delayed while “they” find a way to whisk the boys out of the reach of their countrymen.  While it’s undeniably true that they’ll be far better off in life if they end up, say, in America, it is a sad commentary on the current state of affairs in Afghanistan.  I still think the crew of The Kite Runner has much to answer for in involving these boys in such a risky endeavor.  [Update: As of December 6, 2007, four of the young actors involved in the film have fled the country.]

[End Spoilers.]

These disappointing facts notwithstanding, Afghanistan deserves the help of the West – the struggle to make that country a place which is peaceful, prosperous, and freedom loving will be long, bloody and complicated even under the best realistic scenario.  Still, it is worth the effort.  It remains to be seen if Hamid Karzai will be a tyrant, a martyr, or a nebbish, but how many more Khalid Hosseinis live lives of quiet desperation (if I might crib from another great writer), and dream of a day when Afghanistan will join the ranks of the First World.

Visit the official website for The Kite Runner – it opens wide on December 14, 2007.

Khalid Hosseini’s latest novel is A Thousand Splendid Suns.

Thanks to Georgia State University’s Middle East Institute for hosting a free advance screening.

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