Thursday, December 9, 2010

KITE RUNNER (2007): Growing up in Afghanistan

How could a nation so pivotal in bringing down the Soviet Regime also have introduced to the world The Taliban?  As Rahim (Shaun Toub - the voice of reason in Kite Runner) observed as the nation was facing the impending Soviet invasion, the Mullahs wish to guide the nation by destroying souls, and the invading Communist nation wished to put in place a system of government that had “no soul.”  In many respects, the storyline in Kite Runner is identical to the one in the current drama about World War II, Atonement.  However, Kite Runner is straightforward and less flashy and, therefore, better than Atonement.  And there is much to be atoned for in the plotline of the movie, Kite Runner.  Amir and Hassan (respectively played by Zekiria Ebrahimi and Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada) as children are best friends in Kabul, and spend much of their time flying kites.  Amir is the son of a wealthy businessman, Baba (Homayoun Ershadi) and Hassan is the son of Ali (Nabi Tanha), a servant for Amir’s family.  Amir is of Pushtan descent, which puts him in the majority of southern Afghans.  Hassan’s mother was Hazara (Afghans from Mongoloid descent), who generally are of the Shiite faith, and this in almost every respect made Hassan a minority in 1970s Kabul.  Though Amir is educated and raised to be less subservient, in almost every respect he is less wise than his friend.  When a kite breaks lose, it is Hassan who always knows where the kite will land.  When picked on by the older boys, Hassan is at least willing to fight back and never give in.  Though Baba loves his son, Amir, it is Hassan (and Ali) for whom Baba has the most respect.
It is through an encounter with older boys that Amir betrays Hassan.  When a teenage bully, Addef (Elham Ehsas), a Pushtan, demands that Hassan hand him over a kite (a kite won by Amir), Hassan refuses to do so.  Hassan is then beaten by Addef and friends and even sodomized.  Amir witnesses the incident but is too afraid to do anything about it.  In fact, Amir is so unable to face Hassan after this incident (and so ashamed that his father will discover his cowardice), that Amir makes it appear as if Hassan has stolen his (Amir’s) watch.  When Hassan is asked by Baba about the watch incident, Hassan refuses to tell what really happens; instead he “confesses” that he stole the watch.  Baba probably does not believe Hassan.  Baba in any case tells Hassan that he’s forgiven.  Unfortunately, Ali feels such shame at what his son has “admitted” that, over the protests of Baba, resigns as servant, and he and Hassan leave.
We need to understand something about Baba to understand what happens next.  Baba is a magnificent man with extremely human flaws.  He drinks too much, likes to show off his wealth (he buys a Ford Mustang like the one driven by Steve McQueen in Bullitt), and he very loudly spouts his unfavorable opinions of both the Mujahideen and the Soviet Government.  Seeing that the Mujahideen and the Soviets were about to engage in a ten-year war on Afghani soil, there really was no option for Baba and his son other than to leave.  Baba arranges for he and Amir to be smuggled to Pakistan and from there fly to the United States.  And it is as they leave Afghanistan that we see Baba’s sense of dignity.  At the border of Pakistan, Baba confronts a Soviet Soldier who nefariously is trying to make a deal to molest a young and married Afghani woman.  Baba tells the soldier (in front of Amir) that he would rather take a “thousand bullets” than to allow such an indecency to take place.  The soldier is forced to back down when Soviet officers arrive at the scene, and the truck for which Baba and Amir are passengers is allowed to drive into Pakistan.
Amir (played as an adult by Khalid Abdalla) graduates from college in the United States, becomes a popular novelist, and later takes Soraya (Atossa Leoni), of Afghan descent, as his wife.  Baba puts his son through college by working in a gas station (a matter from which he takes great joy), and his pride never diminishes even as he is dying from cancer (even while very ill, he cannot abide being treated by a physician of Russian descent).  But after he dies, he is no longer there to guide his son. And in the year of 2000, after Baba has died, Amir is forced to come to terms with his own conscience.
Rahim, now living in Pakistan, calls Amir and begs him to fly to Lahore.  In Lahore, Rahim tells Amir about the fate of Hassan.   Hassan and Hassan’s wife, who have been killed by the Taliban, have now left a son, Sohrab (Ali Dinesh), to be orphaned in Kabul.  Rahim, now also sick and dying, begs Amir to return to Kabul to find Sohrab.  Amir reluctantly agrees to do so, dons a fake beard (to avoid arrest by the “beard patrol”), and travels across war torn Afghanistan (that is unrecognizable from when Amir was a young boy).  He sees a land devoid of trees (the trees all were cut down by the Soviet invaders) and buildings that have been gutted out, and witnesses women “adulterers” being stoned to death.  Amir locates Sohrab at a Taliban haven.  (The young boys are there to satisfy the sexual urges of the Taliban faithful since women are forbidden.)  Amir discovers that one of the leaders of the Taliban haven is a grown-up Assef (Abdul Salam Yusofzai), whose bullying ways have not changed.  Amir attempts to confront Assef (in the film’s only poorly shot scene), but is badly beaten by Assef.  Amir is only saved by Sohrab’s use of the slingshot that his father Hassan had given him.  Amir and Sohrab eventually do make it back to America and Amir and Soraya adopt Sohrab.  In San Francisco, Sohrab is now free to pursue flying of kites, just as his father had done as a child, and he uncomfortably adjusts to his new surroundings.
Kite Runner is different from just about any movie that’s ever been released in America.  Though Hollywood has made a handful of powerful movies in recent years, practically none of these movies have remained untouched by cynicism.  (And Kite Runner is weakest when it becomes most like Hollywood.  The escape scene, the reemergence of a teenage bully who comes back as a Taliban leader and who has no redeeming qualities, is formulaic.)  But Kite Runner is not cynical or crass.  Contrasting Kabul pre and post Afghani war, presenting a simple and compelling tale, and providing remarkable characterizations of Babel as the father, and Amir and Hassan as young boys, make this the best movie I have seen in 2007.  I don’t call it an objection that amateur actors were used for many of the key roles.  Filming actual Afghans in almost every role provided authenticity.  And the acting of Homayoun Ershadi as Baba and, especially, Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada as Hassan was irreplaceable.  Some reviewers have criticized the filming of portions of this movie in China.  It’s ironic to note that the topography of China and much of Afghanistan is remarkably similar.  And others have claimed the movie was too sentimental - to which I would counter it was more positive in message than sentimental.  Some scenes, such as Hassan’s ultimate ending, were tragic.  One reviewer smugly dismissed the movie by saying: “Nostalgia for the good old days of kite running and merely coping with childhood bullies is crunched out on the screen with almost a sense of vulgarity, as the filmmaker conveniently ignores exploring things more vital to our understanding of the Afghans such as class differences, the immense poverty, the way women are treated and insights into the stern Afghan culture and its almost feudal ways.”*  I’d ask this critic to note that the movie does reference the differences between the Pushtan and Hazara; that kite flying was a national pastime of Afghans before it was banned by the Taliban; that the film depicts a culture strongly dominated by men; that it is widely known that the practice of stoning women for various offenses (including not wearing veils) was brought back into fashion by the Taliban; that Hassan was treated differently than Amir because of his ethnicity and class; that the childhood bullying as depicted in the film was not inconsequential; that the events of Amir’s life greatly mirrored the events of the life of Khaled Hosseini, the individual who wrote the novel, Kite Runner; and that the downplaying of the disastrous consequences for the Afghani people concerning the Soviet occupation and rule of the Taliban by this critic is a symptom of feeble-mindedness.
I was surprised to discover that Marc Forster, the director of Kite Runner, also directed Monster’s Ball (which I’ve never seen, but am now very interested in).  I was not surprised to discover that the novel was in many respects autobiographical.  Hosseini and his family were forced to emigrate from Kabul, though they ultimately settled in Paris rather than the United States.  I’m guessing that the movie was a fairly accurate depiction of the novel as I’ve been told that Hosseini reveled in his childhood.  The early scenes in Kite Runner portraying the children playing in the streets were passionate and alive.  And the movie never condescends to its audience or attempts to throw dirt on the Afghani people that are depicted.  Babel, for all of his flaws, is a character we should want to emulate.  He is neither a wooden nor romanticized figure in the movie.  Hassan also was a wonderful creation, noble to the core and too subservient to his very goodness to ever survive an indecency such as the Soviet invasion or the rule of the Taliban regime.
* The link to this review is as follows: 

January 8, 2008
© Robert S. Miller 2008

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