Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
Every once in a while, a film comes along that keeps you riveted from the first frame until the last. The Kite Runner somehow manages to be moving without being manipulative, and emotional without resorting to melodrama. It is directed by Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland) who must now be placed in the upper echelon of filmmakers. Forster’s resume is eclectic to say the least; he’s one of those unique directors who values good stories first and foremost, and doesn’t flinch if the genre is one he’s never tried before. He has already made a comedy (Stranger than Fiction), a thriller (Stay) and an enchanting family film (Finding Neverland). With The Kite Runner, he has managed to create a story that is both fascinating and important.
We first meet Amir (Khalid Abdalla) in San Francisco in 2000 as he and his wife open a package which contains his latest novel, hot off the presses. Soon after this, he receives a call from an old friend who tells him that he needs to come to Pakistan because there is “a way to be good again.” While we don’t know what this means, it seems to strike a chord with Amir. We are then taken back to Kabul, Afghanistan in 1978, where we see two boys running in the streets with kites. They are young Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) and his best friend Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) and the streets they run through are filled with food and clothing vendors. It seems like an idyllic place. The boys are expert kite flyers and are always winning local competitions among the residents. This makes Amir’s father Baba (Homayoun Ershadi) very happy indeed, as he once “cut” thirteen kites and is known to hold the record.
The Kabul that we see in these flashbacks is so foreign because all we see these days through the media are caves, ghost towns, and hordes of Taliban driving through what looks like a barren desert. However, back then, Kabul looked like any other Middle Eastern city, full of people working and children playing. Forster and his cinematographer Roberto Schaefer shot these scenes so beautifully that Kabul truly seems like a fantasy land where any of us would live without concern. The kite flying scenes in particular have a striking purity and innocence about them, as we look down from above on Kabul’s perfectly snow covered streets. I found out that these scenes were shot by having the actors fly balloons, with the kites added later with digital. The result is a triumphant blend of fantasy and reality that mirrors how Amir and Hassan must have felt while flying them.
Amir is lucky because Baba is a well-off businessman who provides him with anything he wants. His mother died while giving birth to him, so it’s just him and his father. Hassan is the son of their live-in servant, but Baba treats him as though he is a son as well. Baba’s only real concern with Amir is that he doesn’t fight back against the local bullies, and that a “boy who doesn’t defend himself becomes a man that doesn’t stand up for anything.” This theory is put to the test when (and I’m not giving anything you haven’t already heard) Hassan is raped by a bully and Amir just stands by and watches. There has been much talk about this scene, mostly from people who haven’t seen the film of course. The way it is filmed is perfectly fine, as we understand the severity of what’s happened without being made to watch anything graphic. Anyone who sees the film and still has a problem with this scene needs to just stick with the Food Network. More important is the aftermath of this scene, and the implications it brings with it for the rest of Amir’s life. He doesn’t know how to deal with what’s happened, he does some things he shouldn’t do, and suddenly Hassan is gone from his life.
Before we know it, Russians invade Kabul and Amir and Baba are forced to head to Pakistan. We next see them ten years later in San Francisco, where Baba works at a gas station while selling antiques at an Afghani market, and a grown up Amir is a writer. They both seem to have assimilated quite well into their lives as Americans, but neither can leave their past behind. Kabul is still near and dear to Baba’s heart, and while Amir writes what he calls “fiction,” it seems more closely to resemble memoirs of his homeland. One day at the market, Amir meets Soraya (Atossa Leoni) and knows that he wants to marry her. Routine seems to set in, until Amir gets that call from old friend and heads back to Pakistan – and then Kabul – where he comes full circle with his destiny and finally gets a chance to “be good again.”
The Kite Runner is about a lot of things; finding inner peace, redemption, healing old wounds, etc. Mostly though it is about a time and place that no longer exists except for in Amir’s heart. It takes place pre-9/11, but its subject matter is all the more relevant because of that day. The days of Amir’s kite flying (as well as that horrible day of the rape) in Kabul are a thing of the past, but as much as he might want to move on, there’s something there that just won’t let him do that. The film’s main theme is Amir’s redemption from his crime of inaction, yet just as powerful is the question of whether or not it’s possible for him to go to the home of his youth again, and if that home even exists anymore.
The performances in the film are flawless from mostly unknown actors. Forster’s direction is pitch-perfect, without a trace of “Americanism” that sometimes creeps into adaptations like this. Credit must also be given to the script adapted by David Benioff from the novel by Khaled Hosseini. Hosseini himself was born in Kabul, which no doubt leads to the personal and heart-wrenching nature of his beautiful story.
The grown up Amir says of his childhood friend Hassan that his kite flying abilities were something that he simply “just knew how to do.” The same can be said of Mr. Forster’s filmmaking abilities, as his The Kite Runner takes us on an incredibly emotional and spiritual journey. When all is said and done, its greatest achievement might be healing some of the wounds that Arab-Americans have had inflicted on them since September 11th.