Occasionally, such as in the movie W., you get an uncomfortably topical movie.
With a movie with such grim topics, it helps if large parts of the movie take place in the United States, as is the case here. In fact, no part of this movie was filmed in Afghanistan. Rather, Western China (specifically Tashgarkan, China) was used as a Kabul substitute, and Kashgar and the Pamir Mountains in China were used to depict other parts of Afghanistan. You would be forgiven for thinking that the crew had somehow managed to film this movie inside Afghanistan, because it feels quite authentic.
The Kite Runner actually follows a long period of Afghan history, beginning with the period of the Russian invasion in the late 1970s and ending with the occupation by the Taliban in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As you might expect, it is full of Afghanis, which means that you are almost guaranteed not to recognize anyone in the film. Do not let the lack of a prominent actor deter you from seeing the film, because it is gritty, very well done and perhaps too realistic. Amir, a talented boy, lives with his wealthy secular widower father in one of the nicest neighborhoods in Kabul. His father employs a servant whose son Hassan also lives with the family. Hassan does not look Pashtun, the prominent ethnic group in that part of Afghanistan. Outside the sanctuary of their house, he is fair game for a group of older Pashtun bullies, who also harass Amir for his association with him. Perhaps the boys merely mirror the social, ethnic and religious anxiety around them. Afghanistan has rarely known peace for long, and it’s clear that a Russian invasion of Afghanistan is imminent.
Boys being boys, they tune out much of the adult things happening in Afghanistan. Amir and Hassan are the closest of friends, even to the point of carving their initials into a tree. Amir is an inveterate storyteller and Hassan is his eager listener. Their passion, like most of the boys in Kabul, is kite flying. Amir and Hassan are gifted in the art of kite flying, which in Afghanistan involves contests to see if your kite can intersect other kites and cut their lines, setting them adrift. It’s a neat and harmless hobby that involves a great deal of skill.
Soon enough, Amir and Hassan’s relationship is torn apart, principally by the Soviet invasion. Amir and his father flee to Pakistan and eventually to the United States. The story resumes some twenty years later in the San Francisco Bay area. Amir’s wealthy father is reduced to clerking in the United States. Both are still vested in a small but vibrant Afghan community in the bay area. Without going into details, Amir falls in love with a prominent Afghan woman, his father suffers serious health issues he finds a compelling reason to return to Afghanistan under occupation by the Taliban.
It is the latter third of the movie, when an Americanized Amir returns to Afghanistan, which will both appall you and pull at your sense of pathos. Amir returns to a country he barely recognizes that is under the thumb of the ultra-orthodox and power crazy Taliban, then at the height of their power. His journey into Kabul is incredibly dangerous. It is depressing to see a city so shattered, with women reduced to wearing burkas and requiring male escorts, and with religious law meted out with impunity. It is even more depressing to think that no matter what we do in Afghanistan, the Taliban are likely to be in charge again at some point, if they are not already by force of occupation in much of Afghanistan.
While the cast is almost exclusively full of Afghans, the film’s producers and directors are not. The story is based on a novel of the same name by Khaled Hosseini. It is chalk full of adult themes and the nastiness that was and still is the present Afghanistan. It is also very well acted and directed. Its story is not very complex, but it is a very human story of largely ordinary people trapped by circumstances in a larger and messy conflict. The film won a number of awards. It generated some controversy because of a simulated rape scene involving Hassan, which made it dangerous for the actor to return to Afghanistan.
There is some disturbing violence in this movie, as well as many other sad scenes (such as seeing amputees with war or Taliban-inflicted injuries trying to get around Kabul). However, you also get a sense of Afghanistan and its complex culture. The movie’s only real flaw is it feels too close to the present. Perhaps this movie would have been better if it had been made a couple of decades later.
3.2 on my four-point scale.