Friday, Dec. 21, 2007

The Kite Runner

By David Luhrssen
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Afghanistan became the red-hot front line of the Cold War when the occupation by the Soviet Union was resisted by an uneasy, American-supported coalition. Some of the anti-Soviet forces, especially the Taliban and Al Quaeda, later turned on the U.S. in a series of events leading to 9-11 and the American invasion of the country. After all of that, including decades of pitched violence and heavy oppression, it's hard to imagine that Afghanistan was once as popular as Goa on the hippie trail. Before 1978 it was a tolerant country offering exotic, off-road pleasures to adventurous Westerners; a society whose age-old tribalism harmonized with the coming of modernity until the harmony was shattered by the cacophony of Soviet tanks.

The most widely acclaimed rumination on Afghanistan from the 1970s onward has been the heartbreaking novel by Afghan expatriate Khaled Hosseini. His best seller, The Kite Runner, has been transformed by director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland) into this season's most anticipated film on the art house circuit. The Kite Runner is principally the story of Amir, who fled Afghanistan as a boy with his father and grew up, much like Hosseini, to write a novel about his childhood and flight from the land of his ancestors. The Kite Runner is in part an extended flashback to Amir's childhood, a comfortable upbringing in a gated mansion with servants, and especially Amir's guilty relationship with Hassan, the son of his father's manservant.

Amir and Hassan were close friends, running brightly colored paper kites together through the winding streets of Kabul. But when Hassan is raped by the local bully, Amir hides in the shadows. In the uncomfortable aftermath, he grows cold to Hassan, eventually callous, driving him away as if to push the humiliating episode from his mind. The rape was humiliating for Amir as well because he is a timid, fearful youth. “There's something missing in that boy,” his father fumes. Amir's own weakness in the face of evil embarrasses him. Perhaps later in life he will have the chance to develop strength of character?

The rape of Hassan, suggested rather than graphically depicted, has been the principal subject of The KiteRunner's media coverage in the West and a sore point in Afghanistan. The boys in the rape scene had to be spirited from the country by the movie's producers for fear of reprisal. Lost in some of the careless media attention is one of the reasons this scene is viewed as dangerous in Afghanistan. It's not entirely squeamishness or even homophobia. The bully rapist is Pashtun and the victim is part of the Persian-speaking Hazara minority. In the tinderbox of Afghanistan today, some fear that this depiction of degradation by the majority over a minority might be another lit match. It's a culture that honors the power of images to the point of restricting the use of images.

Although The Kite Runner has several superior cinematic moments, Foster (who is no stranger to grit) handles its characters and plot with velvet gloves. He errs a little on the side of softness and sentimentality. Hosseini's prose was terse. Foster's production cushions the story for the comfort of middle class audiences in the West. It's an important story nonetheless, a reminder of what Afghanistan once was and how it was ruined by Soviet Communists and Islamic fundamentalists. The Kite Runner's portrayal of the country before the Soviet invasion is accurate; its depiction of life within an exiled ethnic community in America is nuanced and true. It also nails the casual and not-so-casual cruelty of childhood. The Kite Runner offers a realistically bleak vision of Afghanistan under the Taliban as a place where civilization was encouraged to fall into ruin. The zealous gunmen imprisoned women in burkhas, imposed a narrow interpretation of Islam on the Muslim population and tried to outlaw the human spirit. They even banned kite flying.

Although Amir is the protagonist, his father is the movie version's most interesting and dramatically vivid character. A liberal well-to-do Muslim in '70s Afghanistan, he is scornful of mindless ideologues, mindful of his social obligations to the lower classes, fiercely loyal and courageous even in the face of a sniggering Soviet soldier with an assault rifle. In America he works hard at a gas station and flea markets, puts his son through college and maintains his dignity at all cost. He comes across as The Kite Runner's hero. Amir is made of tissue paper by comparison.

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