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"The Kite Runner"

Directed by Mark Foster with Ahmad Khan Mahmidza, Zekiria Ebramimi, Homayoun Ershadi, Khalid Abdalla, and Zekeria Ebrahimi, color, 127 minutes, 2007

The Asia Society, New York, October 12, 2007

DVD cover

Cover of DVD

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 a crescendo.

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 Afghans.

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 will listen.

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 in Afghanistan.

"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 word.

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 - a Pashtun.

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 in Afghanistan.

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 him.

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 children.

"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 today.

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 tears":

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 Amir.

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 his son.

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 surprising.

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 back tears.

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.

This film is ranked 52nd in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

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