This weekend, a faithful adaptation of the Khaled Hosseini’s popular novel The Kite Runner, a story of betrayal and redemption in Afghanistan, flies into theaters. A distressing and uneven book creates a similar movie, but with enough cultural insight and redemption to be worthwhile to those wanting to interject a little social justice into their holidays.
Told in long, subtitled flashback, the story follows Afghan immigrant Amir (Khalid Abdalla) as he adjusts to life in the United States and tries to make amends for a childhood betrayal that haunts him.
The flashback finds Young Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) as a boy growing up in 1970s Afghanistan. He lives with his wealthy father, or Baba (Homayoun Ershadi), a leader in the community. They are attended by servants the ethnic minority Hazara tribe, Ali (Nabi Tanha) and his son Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada). Amir and Hassan share a close and convoluted friendship, watching movies at the theater, reading Afghan stories, and flying kites in city wide contests. Brutish neighborhood bully Assef (Elham Ehsas), whose sense of racial superiority and social status give him free reign to indulge in his schoolyard oppression, corners Hassan one day. The act of sexual violence that follows, and Amir’s guilt in not stopping it, echo through the story. Before Amir can mature enough to make sense and make amends, the Soviets invade and he and his father flee the country.
As an adult living in San Francisco in 2000, Amir is called back to his homeland to perform an act of rescue and redemption. He finds the Taliban ruling a devastated and terrified land. Assef, once a small time tyrant, now bullies an entire city. Amir’s past neatly comes full circle as he tries to right his past wrong.
The movie is frustratingly uneven in its treatment of characters. Good, loyal, and longsuffering Hassan could be plucked from the pages of a Dickens novel. Baba is unfailingly wise, kind, and brave. Even adult Amir is flat; the contrast with young Amir couldn’t be greater. His normal childhood pursuits are punctuated by desperation to please his father, which leads to resentment of Baba’s kindness toward Hassan. Amir loves Hassan as a playmate, yet also feels the burden of superior social rank and wealth. When Hassan’s victimization highlights Amir’s shortcomings in his mind, his affection for the other boy turns to hate.
Afghanistan itself takes the role of another character in the film. The early scenes show great affection for the homeland of Amir’s youth, for its men and women working to modernize and build an educated and prosperous country. The joy of celebrations and kite contests shines through. The later scenes convey a county under an oppressive regime. In his brief time in Taliban occupied Afghanistan, Amir witnesses a stoning, starving children in a makeshift orphanage, and lawless soldiers with the power to execute. It’s the kind of country in which the populace is afraid to look the militia in the eye. The Taliban are the bad guys, not Muslims in general. Thus, the viewer feels a connection to, and commonality with, the Muslim characters while still witnessing oppression and injustice. The film does not offer many light or hopeful moments. Although it ends with a ray of hope, it’s a dark and distressing trip.
The film has sent shockwaves into the real world. Although the rape scene garnered a PG-13 rating in the States, it was taken badly enough in Afghanistan that the directors removed the child actors from the country in fear for their safety. Participant Productions is hoping, despite the difficulties in Afghanistan, that the movie will build bridges with the West. It has set up a website that has study guides for the film, opportunities to donate to Afghan humanitarian agencies, and a social networking component to discuss political issues. Amnesty International, among other agencies, has signed onto the project.
“There is a way to be good again” is the tagline of the film, which could also be a motto for many mainstream films. Perhaps a quest for redemption, set in a little understood country with which we are intertwined, demonstrates we have more in common than we realize.
– Rebecca Cusey writes from Washington, D.C.