Children of the Revolution
Looking at the Afghanistan civil war from the story of two childhood friends
Kite flying is pretty, but it can also be an act of aggression. As depicted in the opening scenes of The Kite Runner, it's extremely competitive. In order to keep their kite in the air as long as possible, participants try to cut the strings of other kites and send them crashing to the ground. This mixture of beauty and potential violence permeates the first third of The Kite Runner, set in 1978 Kabul. A competent director with little personality, Marc Forster never finds a style appropriate for the tension underlying the period.
The Kite Runner focuses on two boys, Amir (played as a child by Zekeria Ebrahimi and an adult by Khalid Abdalla) and Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada). Hassan's father is a servant of Amir's father (Homayoun Ershadi). The two friends spend their time flying kites, although they're often harassed by bullies who question the sincerity of their bond. When the Russians invade Afghanistan, Amir and his father are able to emigrate to the United States, while Hassan stays behind. In 2000, Amir learns some startling information about Hassan, who has recently died, and travels to Afghanistan to rescue Hassan's son.
Politically, The Kite Runner's treatment of the Taliban isn't exactly daring. More intriguing is its celebration of immigrant life in the United States. If Amir achieves the American Dream, it would be more accurate to call it the Afghan-American Dream. He speaks English with an American accent, but he doesn't exactly assimilate. Instead of becoming Americanized, the country around him becomes Afghanized. He and his father socialize in a world composed mostly of other Afghan-Americans. They never suffer overt racism or discrimination. Even their own prejudices are carry-overs from the old country. Amir's father refuses to be a treated by a Russian-American doctor. Amir marries an Afghan-American woman, the daughter of a general. In California, an outdoor antiques market becomes a rough analogue for Kabul's teeming bazaars. Given the rising tide of xenophobia in the U.S., there's something to be said for Forster's loving treatment of Muslim immigrants, although he mostly glosses over their religious beliefs. Much of this section flops dramatically, though-security and stability don't make very interesting storytelling.
For a PG-13 movie, The Kite Runner is surprisingly fixated on child rape, its primary metaphor for the abuse of power. Early on, Hassan is sexually assaulted by a bully in an alley. The scene itself is presented tastefully, passing by quickly and mostly involving closeups of Hassan's face. When he limps away, blood drips down his legs onto the snow. Forster makes this one of the movie's central images, creating several others that evoke it. Ali throws ripe fruit at Hassan, splattering his face and chest with blood-red juice. At a market, the camera focuses on a pool of goat's blood. Unfortunately, the movie is more concerned with the rape's effects on Amir than Hassan. This would go down easier were it willing to dig deep into Afghan class relations and ideas about masculinity. In any case, it's a running theme: When Amir returns to Afghanistan, he discovers that the Taliban's prime hobby seems to be pedophilia. The bullies have grown up and taken charge.
While showing a handful of horrible events, The Kite Runner is ultimately a story of triumph. Despite the subtitles and distant locales (China substitutes for Kabul), it's a Hollywood melodrama to the core. Such movies often deal with historical tragedy by focusing on the lucky few who escaped. You can't fault Forster or Khaled Hosseini, author of the source novel, for choosing what Afghan lives to depict, but the result is a severely compressed version of what it was like to live under the Taliban.
Amir's return to Afghanistan takes up the movie's rushed final half-hour. It's a nonstop parade of abuse and assault, with little indication of how the Taliban exerted its power in ways more subtle than stoning adulterers to death. Since it ends in 2000, The Kite Runner doesn't address America's invasion of Afghanistan. Still, its depiction of the horrors of Afghan life under the Taliban begs the question of what should be done about them. In this context, melodramatic formula feels mighty inadequate. It may serve the person who triumphs against all odds, but what about the rest of the country? The Kite Runner pays lip service to the fate of the unlucky, but ultimately it's more interested in kitschy images of kites and mountains.