Hope in a tu­mul­tuous world

Ed­die Cock­rell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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