Thursday, June 10, 2010

Afghanistan on Film

By David Luhrssen
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Afghanistan has seldom been out of the news or out of the movies since 911. In the years that followed the American counterattack, films ranging from Iron Man to The Kite Runner have depicted the mountainous country and its people for Western audiences. In Afghanistan in the Cinema (University of Illinois Press), Mark Graham subjects those and earlier movies about that land to a close reading. Mostly, he doesn’t like what he sees.

The cultural chauvinism of many Hollywood productions and even well intended indie documentaries is plain enough. The Kite Runner is a special case. For those of us who found the movie adaptation a little thin and reductive, closer in spirit to Hollywood than Kabul, Graham says “yes, you’re right, and here’s why.” Dressed up in fashionable multicultural garb, and for all its justified horror over the Taliban, The Kite Runner is essentially a lesson in easy assimilation into an ethically and ethnically indistinct America. Increasingly this means surrendering any values, especially communal values, that contradict the free market global economics of “materialism and competitive individualism,” the bunk about “the end of history” in a world where every other place becomes the 51st state. Interestingly, the author of the film's bowdlerized screenplay was the son of a onetime Goldman Sachs chairman who advised George W. Bush on foreign policy.

The Kite Runner’s disguised agenda, as Graham sees it, is that U.S. military intervention is an emotional tonic for Americans nostalgic for a “good war,” regardless of the cost. Not unlike the old narratives of Kipling and countless dime store Westerns, the movie implies that the invasion by Western forces of this frontier land is a “civilizing” mission. Only nowadays, the natives are more eager to take up the white man’s burden. It’s a measure of Graham’s critical skill that he can decode the ideology of The Kite Runner while recognizing the story’s relationship with the reality of Afghanistan on the eve of the Soviet invasion and the reasons for its widespread popularity among American readers and moviegoers. The protagonist “can do what we want to believe is possible: reach back into the past and undo the damage he (or we) inflicted there.”

Afghanistan in the Cinema challenges us to see through the web of barely visible ideology spun by pundits and politicians. “By drawing attention to the many popular and influential films that portray Afghanistan from positions of extreme cultural, political, and religious bias,” Graham writes, “I am suggesting that our perception of Afghanistan and its people is often warped to fit the needs of aggression and profit…” His insights can be applied to the popular, often media-driven depictions of a great many issues facing our world.

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