Friday, December 14, 2007

The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner, directed by Marc Forster, based on the novel by Khaled Hosseini, produced by Dreamworks with Participant, and distributed by Paramount Classics/Vantage, started its theatrical release today (Dec. 14), after a postponement of several weeks over concerns for safety to the two young actors, who are reportedly secure somewhere in the UAE. The radical Muslim outrage focuses on one particular scene early, in a culture that blames victims of assaults for bringing it on themselves. Although the film will not be shown in theaters in Afghanistan, certainly DVDs will appear. Many people in Afghan culture do not understand movies and that what is shown is fiction, and will believe that the boys were actually shamed in the real plane, and may want to take revenge. Apparently Paramount hired former CIA agent John Kariakou (discussed on the International Issues blog Dec 11 in "CIA Agent Speaks Out" on ABC) who felt that the danger was significant. The book author, Mr. Hosseini, says he has experienced no problems in the four years since the best-selling book was published, unlike the situation of Salman Rushdie in Britain. (As far as people "not understanding movies," I actually had a problem with a school administration believing that one of my fictitious screenplays that I had authored and placed on my domain was "real"; that's the heart of the infamous "Touching" case in California in the late 1970s.)

Actually, to focus on that misses the main points of the film, which might emanate from the Islamic belief (according to the film) that all sin gets down to stealing in some form. In a patriarchal culture, that means especially that family members owe their fathers (and Allah) inasmuch as everything they have (in a world that does not distribute wealth evenly) was given to them by religious and family circumstances. From that one principle a rich and layered story evolves.

As boys, Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada) and Amir (Zekiria Ebrahimi) are friends in 1978 Kabul, and Hassan, though a bit shy, is an accomplished kite runner. Amir is more cerebral and writes stories, which his benevolent father Baba (Homayoun Ershadi) asks to look at, as if Amir was writing away inappropriate family secrets. That turns out to be a feint, but Amir may have a bit of a dark side. A neighborhood Pashtun teen Assef (Salam Yousafzi) complains that Hassan’s presence is a burden because he comes from a different tribe. (Hassan insists that he is not personally hurting anyone.) A beating and sexual assault follows, and it is absolutely clear the assault is about power (to conquer and degrade an “enemy”), and has no erotic meaning at all. It is carefully and obliquely filmed, and the film stays within PG-13 territory, probably because it is so clear that this is about political pecking order and nothing more. (Nevertheless, the outrage in some Islamic world segments, who see their culture humiliated and attacked.) Now Amir starts to taunt Hassan, trying to prod Hassan to hit back (that was done to me as a boy). Amir then “frames” Hassan for a minor theft, in an adolescent-brain even that seems hard to explain the same way similar false witness by the girl Briony in “Atonement” unfolds in a film reviewed Dec. 8. Hassan’s father (Nabu Tanhi) insists that Amir leave Afghanistan with his father Baba, just as the Soviet invasion begins. There are arrangements to look after Baba’s house and other family matters, but it should be no surprise that these fall apart under the pressure of the Soviet invasion.

One wonders here if it would be more logical for Amir to have become the target of bullying. After all, he is the more cerebral. Both boys seem somewhat sensitive and quirky. Even so, Amir could have wound up sent away with an even more subtle set of tribal moral problems. As the story is set up, Amir (Khalid Abdalla as an adult), though becoming a successful writer in San Francisco (his book is called something like “Heaven from the Ashes”) and marrying without being able to have children. The story intersects 1988 and 2000 and Amir hardly ages at all as he reaches his early 30s.

Amir gets a phone call in 2000, to the effect that he should return to Afghanistan to make things right. (Here the movie poster line, "There is a way to be good again" appears.) His mission is to pick up a nephew left from the family tragedy which his boyhood deception helped create. So there is the basic plot element here that makes “Atonement” work, although Amir could have felt considerable family pressure anyway even without a personal sin. The last third of the film, most of it shot in western China, is spectacular with the brown and snowy mountains and passes. (The film does have live footage from Kabul.) He puts on a fake beard to fool the Taliban, now in power when the Soviets are expelled. He witnesses a stoning of an adulteress in the stadium, and is detected. There is a final confrontation, where he is asked why he deserted his own people. Now that sounds more like tribalism than anything having to do with a personal sin. There is some irony in how he gets out that we won’t disclose, as a spoiler. Needless to say, he and his wife will have a family. But he might have been expected to be responsible for his nephew anyway in this bloodline-tribe driven culture.

The film does underline the Taliban's preoccupation with male beards, a secondary sexual characteristic that seems to have ritualistic significance and seems to fit in to their religious justification of an economic and social "pecking order." At one point Amir is told never to make eye contact on the street or stare at any other male. The incredibly strict religious environment seems designed to protect the ability of males to "perform" the way their tribes expect.

The film, then, comes across as a searing examination of the moral principles underneath Islamic society. Amir is the progressive, trying to bring culture and individuality back into Islam, a character that it had a thousand years ago before the Crusades. The film makes it appear as if the self-righteous Taliban came into power largely as a reaction to Communism, and that Islam took its negative turn in history because of external insults. That may be the case. The film, like the likable writer character, tries to nudge Islam into the a direction of accepting individual freedom within the context of its scriptures. The film may be banned in Afghanistan and some tribal areas of Pakistan where authorities fear it will trigger vengeful emotions.

The film does not take us up to 9/11, although it’s easy to imagine that it could have. I recall, in General Education in Ninth Grade, choosing Afghanistan (“a place at the ends of the Earth” according to Newsweek in the fall of 2001) as the Asian country that I would report on to the class, and the teacher’s making the comment that she knew that this was the country I would pick. There was some prescience in her mind a half century ago.

Here's another blogger's review, at this link.

A more conventionally styled film (a sort of satire-comedy) about the international "scheming" that it took a Texas Congressman (Tom Hanks) to respond to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is Univeral's "Charlie Wilson's War," directed by Mike Nichols, based on the book by George Crile.

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