Hope in a tumultuous world
WHO are we in this complicated world?’’ young Afghan Amir ( Zekeria Ebrahimi) asks his well- connected father, or Baba ( Homayoun Ershadi), as they flee the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. It’s a provocative question, and one at the heart of Khaled Hosseini’s popular 2003 novel, The Kite Runner , as well as director Marc Forster’s suffocatingly tasteful film version of it.
Few films can fang through 30 years of volatile social and personal history without the inevitable grinding of narrative gears, and that’s precisely what happens during the course of this overly ambitious saga.
In the end, genre strategies are employed to answer the question, rendering this wellintentioned drama a noble, and dignified, failure.
Having said that, the first hour or so of the story is an absorbing joy. In the late 1970s Kabul, surrounded by a colourful bustle that would later be demolished by the Russians and then the Taliban, schoolboy best friends Amir and Hassan ( Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) spend all their waking hours together. A naturally gifted writer with a tangible streak of introverted sadness, Amir is encouraged by his father’s friend Rahim Khan ( Shaun Toub).
For his part, the eager and faithful Hassan is happy to team with Amir in the city- wide kiteflying festival, where he is most skilled at the titular task of running down vanquished kites when they’ve been dispatched, or cut’’, by competing fliers. These sequences possess a compelling energy in faithful service to the story, much of which arises from the use of kite- eyeview special effects.
But Hassan, the minority Hazara son of Baba’s long- time servant, falls victim to cruel sexual violence at the hands of teenage tormentors. Amir watches his rape, and abruptly severs his friendship with the boy out of shame and guilt.
By 1988, Amir ( played now by Khalid Abdalla) has settled with his father in California. He marries Soraya ( Atossa Leoni), the daughter of an exiled Afghan general ( Abdul Qadir Farookh), and by 2000, following the death of his father, has published his first book. Summoned to Pakistan by an ailing Rahim Khan with news of Hassan’s murder by the Taliban, Amir is plunged back into the shame of his childhood through a frantic quest to rescue the son of his spurned friend. Thus does the tumult come full circle.
Refreshingly, the Hollywood filmmakers took the gutsy decision to film primarily in the Dari language, one of the two main Afghan tongues. This is supplemented by English, as well as a smattering of dialogue in the Taliban- favouring Pashto and the Pakistani language of Urdu. While these linguistic subtleties will surely be lost on Western ears, the resulting veracity keeps the film far from the grating cliches of artificially accented English often employed by studios fearful of alienating a mass US audience.
This is particularly evident in the remarkably unaffected performances of Ebrahimi and Mahmoodzada as Amir and Hassan. Amateurs chosen from the ranks of Kabul schoolchildren, they bring a fresh enthusiasm to difficult roles. These performances showcase the delicate skill with children Forster displayed previously in Finding Neverland ( which was also cast by the veteran Kate Dowd, who specialises in American productions filmed outside the US).
Art- house patrons may remember Iranian actor Ershadi as the brooding lead in Abbas Kiarostami’s Cannes- winning 1996 drama Taste of Cherry . Abdalla, an Egyptian raised in London, was last seen as a hijacker in Paul Greengrass’s United 93 . Toub, of Persian heritage, is familiar as the angry shopkeeper in the Oscar- winning Crash . These and other cast members laboured to learn the local language, and their success is evident in the seamlessness of the ensemble. Less so are the narrative conveniences that bring the grown- up Amir back to the region. Linkages that may have worked on the page become improbable coincidences on screen, with a denouement that panders to Hollywood conventions.
In an all- too- real twist, the fear of fundamentalist reprisals against the young lead actors for the simulated sexual molestation — discreet by Western standards — forced a delay of the US release until the boys and their parents could be relocated. It is uncomfortable to imagine the lives of these children and their families disrupted to such an extent, and for such a reason. For them, and for the filmmakers who placed them in this difficult position, an already volatile world has indeed become much more complicated. The Kite Runner is an intermittently stirring, yet ultimately flawed, testament to such strife.
Testament to fundamentalist strife in Afghanistan: Zekeria Ebrahimi, left, and Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada in The Kite Runner