By Michele Leight
Having loved the best-selling
book "The Kite Runner," by Khalid Hosseini, it was with
some reservation that I entered the darkened auditorium of The
Asia Society on October 12, 2007 for a screening of the film -
just as media attention about its delayed release had reached
Rarely has a film measured
up to a book of this stature. The film succeeds extremely well
because it does not venture far from the original writing. The
screenplay is by David Benihof (who also did "Troy").
"Kite Runner," the
film, is directed by Mark Foster, whose other film credits include
"Monsters Ball" and "Finding Neverland" -
no stranger to tough subject matter.
This powerful story is about
the friendship between two boys in Kabul - Amir, the son of a
wealthy Pushtun businessman, named Amir, played by Zekiria Ebrahimi,
and his father's servant's son, Hassan, a Hazarra, played by Ahmad
Khan Mahmidza - a performance few are likely to forget.
The cinematography is beautiful,
and rescues what is often deeply disturbing subject matter. The
story asserts the gift of freedom, and the tragedy of what can
happen to some children and some nations while we are able to
sit back in secure seats in movie theatres and simply watch. Ultimately
it is about hope and redemption.
The friendship of Hassan and
Amir friendship overrides the prejudice reserved for Afghanistan's
minority Hazarra community, but other forces conspire against
the boys - and, coincidentally, Afghanistan. Without meaning to
be political "The Kite Runner" is a crash course in
the history of the country, while also being hugely entertaining,
heartbreaking and revealing of how difficult life still is for
The extremely beautiful Dari
script in the opening credits unfolding across the screen in cursive
ebbs and flows, one of the most spectacular title sequences in
film history, were a reminder that a war-torn, battle-scarred,
proud and famously independent people have retained their dignity.
Since the end of the monarchy, which is where the novel begins,
this nation has withstood a communist invasion, the ravages of
the Taliban, and decades of sectarian strife, poverty and instability.
It is a "given" that
the safety of child actors (anyone under 18 years old) is an obligation
of any film producers and film studios involved in any film in
any country - but especially in nations without the creative license
we have in the free world and particularly in nations like Afghanistan
where tensions between ethnic communities are easily ignited -
and specifically because of a highly publicized rape scene involving
one of the boys in the film.
Ahmad Khan Mahmidza, who plays
Hassan, is a Hazzara and he and his family have received threats
from their community because they feel his role dishonors them,
because he is raped. All three non-actors (who are at risk) are
underage, and from Afghanistan. The rest of the cast are established
international actors and adults.
The idea that adults might
avenge their anger on children for acting a part derived from
a work of fiction is hard to accept from the perspective of artistic
license and freedom. However, sadly, in the context of Kabul,
Afghanistan, where ethnic tensions run deep and have been escalating
since the filming of "The Kite Runner" began, the possibility
of reprisals against the boys is very real.
It is therefore a relief to
know that the studio, Paramount Vantage, has decided to hold back
the release date of this eagerly anticipated film to global audiences
until December 14th, by which time the three school-age actors
will be removed to safety in the United Arab Emirates, possibly
never to return to Afghanistan. This is a high price to pay, but
it demonstrates how different life is for many people who do not
share our freedoms. Pirated tapes find their way back to nations
with taboos and censorship for films, television - and printed
material - that contain sexual subject matter.
"The Kite Runner"
is about loyalty, betrayal, and the bond between fathers and sons.
While the only women to appear in the film are Soraya, the adult
Amir's wife, and her mother, a wonderful lady who cooks Afghan
food and talks incessantly about her health issues to anyone who
Amir's mother died giving birth
to him. This is explained in the book as being the source of his
father's thinly veiled hostility toward him, but it is not conveyed
as forcefully in the film. "Baba" is wonderfully played
by Homayoun Ershadi. Although he is not as large as one might
expect Baba to be, his screen presence conveys the same sense
of awe. Rahim Khan, Baba's closest friend, is also Amir's confidant,
and an important link in the plot. Rahim Khan is played by Shaun
Toub who many will recognize from the Oscar-winning movie, "Crash,"
All the actors are of Middle Eastern descent, which gives authenticity
to the film production.
Baba adored his wife, and his
son Amir is no consolation for her loss. Moreover, he cannot identify
with his son's preference for writing, poetry and literature,
and his lack of interest in, or success at, sports. Baba favors
the naturally athletic Hassan. Rahim Khan is supportive of his
interests and gives Amir a book to write his stories in for his
birthday. When father and son flee to America to escape the Taliban,
they form a close bond as immigrants in an alien culture, cut
off from their homeland. They make friends with local Afghans
in San Francisco, and Amir meets a beautiful Afghan girl, Soraya,
who has also fled Afghanistan and begun a new life in a new land
with her parents. They fall in love.
Although the book does not
take a political stand, the controversy surrounding the film stems
from the portrayal of the rapist, Assef, as a sadistic Pashtun
- the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan - whose victim is Hassan
who belongs to the minority Hazzara class. The deck is heavily
stacked against Hassan from birth because he is born into a rigid
class system that bans a Hazzara boy from receiving an education.
In the book he also has a harelip, a physical disability that
sets him apart even more, until Baba takes him to a surgeon who
fixes it (as a birthday present).
Hassan's inability to attend
school like other children stands out as a harsh injustice, because
he longs for knowledge, and a formal education, Although they
are both the same age, Hassan prepares Amir's breakfast and irons
his clothes for school, and spends the rest of the day doing chores.
This could not happen in America where education is mandatory
and free for all children, regardless of background, race or ethnicity.
There is a memorable scene
in the film of the two boys reading the legend of Rostam and Sohrab
- Afghan warriors - near their favorite tree in which they have
carved their names against a backdrop of rugged mountains and
blue sky. It is the educated Amir who does the reading, while
the illiterate Hassan hangs on every word. The filming was done
in China, where the terrain is similar, because it was too risky
"The Kite Runner"
subtly exposes other injustices - but the plot does hinge on the
rape. It links the boys for life in a way they could never imagine.
The violation of rape does not tarnish Hassan. Nor does it make
him cruel and sadistic, like Assef. However, Hassan's resignation
and acceptance of his place in life, which stems from his ethnicity,
is difficult for Amir to accept. He feels that Hassan makes no
attempt to fight it, but in the book it is explained that Hassan
does not expect justice because he is a Hazzara, a marginalized
minority, who does not feel the equal of others.
In the book, Hosseini does
not sentimentalize or whitewash the differences that class, caste,
money, education and parentage conveys in nations like Afghanistan
- and in many others, sadly. For Hassan it is not "be all
you can be." It is not America.
Hassan's beautiful spirit and
quiet dignity force the viewer/reader to ask tough questions,
like how do people survive atrocities and injustice with grace?
What do they draw from to rise above rape, bigotry, beatings and
abuse? Instead of framing these issues in an epic story, Hosseini
has chosen to focus on a close friendship between two boys, offering
hope and a path to redemption. Good things can come out of bad
stuff, and that is what makes this story so appealing.
Amir's happiest day, when he
wins the kite flying contest, was Hassan's worst, not only because
he was raped, but because his best friend betrayed him and watched
the rape while hiding. As the kite runner, he had promised to
retrieve his best friend's kite, which fell into the hands of
Assef. If Hassan had agreed to let Assef keep the kite, he could
have walked away unharmed. But he had given his friend Amir his
The film begins with the adult
Amir in San Francisco - convincingly played by Khalid Abdullah
- re-living memories of his youth in Kabul, before the arrival
of the Russians and the Taliban. His father had once been a pillar
of the Kabul community, a wealthy businessman, now working in
a local garage, and selling antiques at the Afghan flea market
on the weekends. However, his son meets Soraya there, and as his
health fails, he hopes his son will marry a good Afghan girl -
One of Baba's proudest and
happiest moments in America is his son's graduation ceremony,
after which he buys everyone in the local bar a drink. On this
day all the sacrifices he has made for his son's future seem worth
it. Amir's evolution as a writer through education magnifiy the
injustice of Hassan's similar longing that cannot be fulfilled
Hassan eventually teaches himself
to read, because he wants to know their favorite legend of Rostam
and Sohrab. When the Russians arrive, soon followed by the Taliban,
life changes for all of them, but by then Hassan and his father
have already left Baba's house. The rape and betrayal drove a
wedge between the boys, mainly because of Amir's guilt for not
trying to help Hassan from the rapist but also because he let
Hassan be wrongfully accused of stealing something from him. Hassan
had forgiven him unconditionally, but his father found out, and
refused to stay in the house because their honor had been tarnished.
He did not tell Baba.
The film skillfully moves between
the past and the present, from San Francisco to Kabul, contrasting
a stable world with a world disintegrating into chaos, and its
devastating impact on everyday life.
The glorious walks and reading
sessions in the countryside are over; the snow-capped mountains
appear stark and forbidding, without the friendship of the two
boys. Amir never finds the courage to tell his father about the
rape and his betrayal of Hassan. Baba also has a dark secret,
which he never tells his son. It is revealed later by Rahim Khan.
Although not all immigrants
to America flee war and ethnic conflict, "The Kite Runner"
does convey the sense of dislocation that leaving a homeland imposes,
even when immigrants like the new country. Everything had to be
abandoned in a matter of hours- the familiar house set against
a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, the lemon tree and flowers
planted by Hassan's father, the walled courtyard, once the scene
of parties and birthdays, and the beloved mountainous terrain
in which Amir and Hassan had passed many happy hours reading,
practicing the sling shot, and flying kites.
The Russians, and the Taliban,
take control of Kabul, but by now Amir and his father are safe
in San Francisco. Amir marries Soraya, their parents are thrilled,
and they lead a peaceful life and they try to have a child but
are unsuccessful. Baba dies knowing his son has married a good
Pushtun girl from a good family. Then one day Amir receives a
phone call from Rahim Khan saying he is unwell, and asking him
to visit him Pakistan, where he has also escaped from the Taliban.
Amir returns to find Rahim
Khan gaunt and ill, and this is when he learns that his father
had made his servant's wife pregnant, and the result was Hassan.
Finally Amir understands why his father had so much love for Hassan
- and so much guilt, because he never claimed him publicly as
his own because he was a Hazarra. This is a dark side of Baba's
character that mirrors Amir's betrayal of Hassan. Rahim Khan also
tells him that Hassan and his wife were shot by the Taliban, and
that their son, Sohrab, was alive and in an orphanage in Kabul.
Amir decides to find Sohrab, and take him back to America with
Kabul has deteriorated beyond
anything Amir could imagine, house by house, street by street,
piles of rubble everywhere and pick-up trucks manned by Taliban
patrolling against the backdrop of dazzling snow capped mountains
that are the only recognizable remnants of his past. The search
is difficult and dangerous and for a while it seems futile.
A barbaric stoning of an adulterous
couple in the soccer stadium at half-time in the match is a shocking
demonstration of what the rule of law means to the Taliban, and
how those who cross their line are punished. In the film bloodstains
seep through the woman's pink burkha, accompanied by cheering
crowds, after which the limp bodies of the couple (the man was
also stoned to death) are dumped like garbage into a pick up truck
by rifle-toting Taliban and driven away. It is hard to believe
that people are still stoned to death today as they were in biblical
times. In the book this incident is more graphically described,
and infinitely worse, if that seems possible. It is a true, sadly.
"The Kite Runner"
exposes other assaults on freedom. There is "beard patrol,"
where the Taliban search for men who are clean-shaven, a criminal
offence the guide warns Armir. To find Sohrab without being detected
Amir wears a fake beard and long robes, not the western clothes
of his youth.
When he looks in the direction
of the Taliban on "beard patrol" in their pick-up truck
he is warned by his guide:
"Don't ever stare at them."
That, it seems, is enough of
a transgression to be carted off and shot.
The Taliban even banned kite-flying,
a passion Hassan and Amir shared with the rest of their community
and country - a symbol of freedom. Since the occupation, the skies
are devoid of kites, as if freedom has been banished forever.
However, the guide who risks
his own life to help Amir in his search for Sohrab has harsh criticism
for those who fled Afghanistan, in the wake of the Taliban takeover:
"So what are you doing
with that whore America - why aren't you here?" he asks Amir.
When Amir comes face to face
with the sadistic Assef, who is now a prominent Taliban official,
he is taunted by him:
"Run away, (to America),
that is what you do best."
Amir and the guide find the
orphanage despite the danger, but are shocked to find that the
owner of the place periodically sells some orphans to a Taliban
official to make ends meet, so he can feed and house the remaining
"What happens to the children
he takes?" asks Amir, but he receives no answer.
Sohrab is missing, one of the
unfortunate orphans that had been selected by the Taliban official.
The sale and trafficking of humans is a thriving industry, especially
in unstable nations where poverty applies additional pressure.
Their vulnerability is now an international concern because many
are trafficked into the sex industry or slave labor.
Hosseini's concern for the
fate of Afghan children jumps off the pages of the book, and it
transfers effectively to the film. Since the writing of the book,
the Taliban have banned girls from attending school, and women
who run girls schools are told to close them - or face the consequences.
When Amir does find Sohrab,
it is only to discover he has become the sexual plaything of Assef,
desensitized to his past and to normal human emotions - a sad
outcome for many impoverished and marginalized children who are
appropriated by adults for sexual purposes throughout the world
But at least Amir does find
Sohrab, even though escaping from Assef is traumatic. Near death
after being beaten by Assef, Amir is taken to a hospital in Kabul
- again, at great risk to the driver, who goes out of his way
to help him once he knows he is in search of a family member.
Sohrab tries to make sense what is going on, naturally finding
it difficult to trust anyone after all he has been through. His
life is in chaos; he is with a relative he does not know, an Afghan
from America. His refuge is silence.
Back at home Soraya hears from
Amir what has happened and is eager to be a mother to Sohrab if
they can get him to America. Adopting Afghan children is almost
impossible, but Soraya's father works in immigration, and promises
to help. Amir's injuries slowly heal, and the papers finally come
through for Sohrab to return with him to San Francisco.
For Amir, this is the beginning
of redemption for his betrayal of Sohrab's father, a release from
the stranglehold of guilt that has consumed him since his youth.
He knows it will not be easy, but at least there is hope because
he found Hassan's son Sohrab, named after the warrior in the legend
they loved to read as young boys before the takeover.
What lingers most after the
film is over and the book has been closed is the image of Hassan
walking amidst the foothills of Afghanistan's magnificent mountain
ranges, remembering his life as a carefree boy before the arrival
of the Taliban, when he dreams of the day when the flowers will
bloom once again in his beloved Kabul.
"The Kite Runner"
has kite-flying sequences that are so beautiful and thrilling
they appear choreographed. When they dip and dive against a bright
blue sky, hope seems eternal.
I saw the movie with a man
who had great trouble holding back tears when Baba accepts Hassan's
fake confession and forgives him. He was deeply moved by the remakable
performances of the actors portraying Hassan and Baba and felt
that Amir's not rising to Hassan's defense was utterly unforgiveable.
He considered the movie a masterpiece.
I own the book, I will see
the film again on the largest movie screen I can find, and when
the DVD is released it will join my collection of "keepers."
I am looking forward to reading
Hosseini's latest book "A Thousand Splendid Suns," which
is about Afghan women and girls.
Comment by Carter B. Horsley,
the man mentioned above "who had great trouble holding back
I had not read the book
when I saw the film and I therefore felt that Amir's father was
uncommonly loving towards his son's kite-running friend, Hassan.
The father is portrayed wonderfully as a very intelligent person
and his seemingly inexplicable charity toward Hassan seemed to
be an act of extraordinary charity - the kind on which religions
can be founded. At the same time, Hassan's extraordinary sacrifice
of not revealing the rape and his innocence over the theft that
Amir framed him with is equally memorable but, sadly, not admirable
for sacrifice should be for something noble and Amir's double
betrayal of him is totally unforgivable. It is, however, an indication
of how remarkable is the performance by Ahmad Khan Mahmidza that
he makes it understandable because of his love and adoration of
I came out of the film with
a loathing for Amir's cowardly and dastardly and unforgivable
conduct towards his friend, who we only learn right near the end
of the film is his brother. While Amir belatedly attempts to "do
the right thing," no mean accomplishment, it cannot whitewash
his contemptible and despicable character. I also came out of
the film with admiration for Amir's father whose forgiveness of
Hassan's "confession" is so very noble and humane, since
at the point in the film there was no indication that Hassan was
Combined with these extremely
compelling emotional factors, the film is a visual spectacular.
The kite-flying sequences are even more awesome than some of the
incredible "Nature" television programs that make us
fly with birds.
This is not some maudlin
account of the travails of the oppressed and discriminated and
poor and uprooted. It is a gut-wrenching challenge to religious
zealousness, ethnic bigotry and cleansing, personal violations,
familial trusts, isolationism, and moral responsibility and the
notion of honor. It is magnificently filmed and dramatically very
It is an indelible presentation
of the foibles and woes of much of humanity and it uses the media
of film, in the great tradition of "The Battle of Algiers"
(see The City Review
article), to put these
important and very complex issues in our faces and imprint them
on our souls. As I write this, I again have difficulty holding
While it is uplifting to
know that the book on which the film was based was a major best-seller
and to be awed by the power and beauty of the film version, it
is, sadly, most distressing that this film was not even nominated
for best picture of the year and many other Oscars as it is inconceivable
that any film in 2007 could approach its artistry and impact.