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Theatre, Music, etc.


January 18, 2008

Soaring above the battle

Through this taut film passes the thread linking homophobia, misogyny, and al Qaida

I read Khaled Hosseniís bestselling The Kite Runner in one stretch on a two-legged flight from the U.S. to India last summer. It had been on my must-read shelf for a while and something finally made me take it along with me. I simply couldnít put the book down, jet lag, exhaustion and red eyes notwithstanding. On a layover in Frankfurt, Germany, I sat on a reclining chair in a large lounge shedding copious tears at several points in the story, not really caring what passersby might think or whether this might be viewed as suspicious and unstable behavior in an airport today.

I donít normally cry at books--many a time while watching good cinema, but rarely while reading. But Hosseniís tale is heart-rending at both the political and personal levels, and while several literary snobs have derided his book for having simplistic language, it is just that straightforwardness that lets the reader engage with the emotional and psychological minefields that litter the novelís landscapes.

Finding out that a film version was due late last year with a staggered wide release this month evoked mixed feelings. Would the filmmakers get it right? Would they be able to do justice to the novelís intimacy, and would they tackle with integrity and maturity the very difficult issues that the book posits?

Largely speaking, the film gets it right. Here is a rare example of a cinematic adaptation of a novel where, as a viewer, I could have done with about 30 more minutes of screen time.

The film is set largely in Afghanistan, that sad, mythically tragic playground of the war-hungry powers of the last century from the Soviet Union and the United States to the Taliban and al Qaida.

Two young friends, Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) and Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada) are growing up in the Afghanistan of the 1970s, where part of the Cold War is being waged. The two are inseparable even though Amir is affluent and Hassan is the son of the familyís loyal and longstanding servant, Ali.

Amirís father Baba (Homayoun Ershadi) sometimes favors the servantís boy over his son, causing some palpable jealousy. Hassan, subservient to the core, will do anything to please Amir and maintain the pride of his and Babaís family. Amir knows that Hassan is loyal, and will later use this vulnerability to get back at his best friend for competing for Babaís affections.

There is a pivotal moment in the story--those who have not read the book or seen the film may not want to read further--when Hassan is raped by the town bully Assef.

Amir does nothing to save Hassan, watching as his best friend is brutalized, and this guilt eventually leads him to destroy the person he loves the most. That is the crux of the personal and ethical battlegrounds that coexist with the more literal wars waging there.

Fast-forward to 2000 in San Francisco when the grown Amir (Khalid Abdalla) gets a phone call from Babaís best friend Rahim Khan (Shaun Toub) in Pakistan, asking him to return to the region because ďthereís a way to be good again.Ē By this time, it is the Taliban who rule Afghanistan with their barbaric brutalities (mainly against women and gays) and when al Qaida is starting to assert its dominance in the region.

The film goes back and forth in time and place to weave a narrative that is simply mesmerizing. Directed by Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Monsterís Ball), the film is tautly pieced together with shattering performances from the largely unknown cast, especially Ebrahimi and Mahmoodzada as the two youngsters Amir and Hassan. Coupled with a lean screenplay by David Benioff (Troy, 25th Hour), Forsterís film is more like a patchwork of memories, impressionistic and expressionistic in their impact on us, asking us to fill in the voids between the visions and nightmares of this potent tale.

Perhaps the only weakness of the film is the fact that it strips away too much of the novel. Including more details about the people, places and plot would have made this a near masterpiece. Ironically, those who have read the book will find the film to be wonderful, because they can fill in the blanks left by Forster and Benioff. Those who have not read the novel might find the film too scant on details, too minimalist in its approach.

Perhaps Benioff learned to whittle things down after his bloated Troy screenplay, but he has gone too far here. The film needs more depth, more description, especially for American audiences where so much is misconstrued, misunderstood or simply not known about the complex miasma that is Afghanistan.

In particular, during the last act of the drama, when the grown Amir comes to Pakistan and Afghanistan to make good on the past, so much is stripped away that some of the emotional explosiveness and complexity of the novel is sacrificed to the detriment of the overall film.

Other than that, this is a wonderful film in every way. Roberto Schaeferís magnificent cinematography captures both the beauty and the blight of Afghanistan from the soaring kite sequences above Kabul to the grimy and grisly Taliban strongholds. He has shot all three of Forsterís films, having also worked on For Your Consideration, Stranger Than Fiction and the upcoming James Bond installment. Schaeferís camerawork is astounding because at times, through the use of his lenses and angles, he allows us to remain bystanders, outside the story, and at others he implicates us in the tumultuous worlds of the narrative.

Alberto Iglesiasí score is silently strong. Iglesias (The Constant Gardner, Volver), who has been the longtime collaborator of Spanish auteur and genius Pedro Almodovar, creates a vivid pastiche of sounds--global in their inspiration and influence--that wonderfully serve the various motifs in the film. The music is akin to a magic carpet ride, soaring and intense.

The acting is uniformly good. Khalid Abdalla (United 93) as the older Amir has a challenge playing a coward and a villain, yet trying to hang onto some shred of our empathy as he tries to find redemption, seeking atonement for the sins of his past and those of his father as well. Abdalla works with a silent strength that at times verges on the bland. Nevertheless, he manages to keep the narrative moving forward as we realize that his sins are part of his own doing and part of the world into which he was born.

Iranian star Homayoun Ershadi (A Taste of Cherry) brings a gravitas to the role of Baba that is splendid. With subtlety and simplicity he creates a father who is emblematic of the old Afghanistan, the old Kabul, brutalized as it was during the Cold War but retaining hope for a democratic, cosmopolitan future.

Shaun Toub (Crash) as Babaís calm and reasonable friend Rahim Khan works with a similar simplicity and effectiveness as Ershadi.

However, the film belongs wholly and solely to its two young newcomers Ebrahimi and Mahmoodzada. Together they create magic and in a more just universe their performances would be the talk of the town, garnering them much attention and several awards.

Stunningly handsome Ebrahimiís all too natural performance hits all the right notes of jealousy and guilt. It is hard for young actors to create convincingly flawed characters who border on the villainous, especially in Hollywood where kids are seen merely as cinematic treacle to up the sweetness, cuteness and sappiness quotient of a film. Ebrahimi is just brilliant.

Mahmoodzada as the subservient Hassan acts with such depth of emotion and worldliness that he breaks your heart at several points along the way. It too is a hard performance to watch because we are not used to seeing children playing with the fire of emotions more often reserved for adults--subservience, total submission to oneís status and class, and even hints of masochism.

That being said about the artistic impact of the film, one cannot complete any discussion about The Kite Runner without a dissection of its social, cultural, global and even sexual politics. Interestingly, most of the mainstream media has either shied away from the gay subtext of the plot or simply given it parenthetical notice. The gay press has also either ignored the issue or patronizingly (and sometimes erroneously) simply chosen to reductively say that homosexuality and male-on-male rape are not connected.

In many ways The Kite Runner is a necessary film because it begins a conversation about homosexuality and all its taboos in worlds (Islamic, Taliban) where we rarely wish to tread. Like Brokeback Mountain or even this yearís brilliant Eastern Promises, this film takes us into worlds where homosexuality exists but is almost never acknowledged, by both those on the inside and those on the outside.

To be sure, these are tricky issues to address and dismantle, especially when homosexuality and violence like rape are part of the same paradigm. The tendency here has been to impose Western ideals of sexual politics into a world where those rules and those models simply donít apply.

The problematic area here is the brutal rape of the young Hassan by Assef, a young man who comes from a family of privilege and political clout. To be sure, Assef rapes Hassan as an act of vengence, violence and assertion of power, particularly because Hassan is poor and from the Hazara people, often in conflict with Assefís Pashtuni people.

Yet, it is hard to ignore the fact that Assef is also masking a world of self-hatred, a universe of internalized homophobia. In a wonderful twist (spoiler alert) in the last part of the film, when Assef reemerges as a powerful Taliban warlord, the politics of sexual identity become powerful and compelling.

It is impossible to not make the connection between the Talibanís misogyny and its homophobia, between its self-imposed isolation from women and the ensuing refuge that men must find with one another--sexually, emotionally and culturally. That is to say, so much misogyny is indubitably often rooted in homophobia. Sometimes, that misogyny emerges from the internalized homophobia of gay men, as is the case with Assef.

There are a few pivotal scenes towards the end of the film that drive all this home. The public stoning of a woman accused of adultery visualizes a brutality that for many in the West remains distantly academic, oddly abstracted. As Assef relishes this brutality that he has ordered in a soccer stadium filled with cheering barbarians, we understand that he hates most that which he has been taught to see and loathe as the weak and feminine in himself. This is the core of his homophobia.

Later, at his headquarters where he forces a young boy (pivotal to the resolution of the film) to perform a very feminine dance, in a feminized avatar, we understand the depth of Assefís misogyny and homophobia all rooted in his intense hatred of who he truly is.

Let me be clear: The rape and his pedophilic tendencies are not because he is gay. Rather, it is imperative to understand that because he is gay and so horribly self-hating, he is led to violence against women and young boys as his cover to hide who he really is in a society where homosexuality is not just the love that dare not speak its name, it is the love that dare not speak at all. His homophobia and self-loathing do not in any way justify his brutalities. Yet, if we are to ever seek understanding about sexuality in the Islamic (and similar) worlds, one cannot simply impose western dialectics about political, social, sexual and cultural identity into a world which yet does not even have the language with which to name those very things.

I cannot end without making this larger point. As we continue in wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, with loud insistences still that we are in the business of spreading democracy, we need to pause and ponder. Can a nation that refuses to give equal rights to its own LGBT population really be the seed of change and equality that it so desperately stakes a claim to?

Perhaps it is better to ask the question this way: Is it not a given that as the U.S. seeks to spread its brand of freedom and equality, it is doing so with the inherent bias against gays and copious doses of homophobia so virulently alive in our own so-called democracy?

So, if the canard of democracy-spreading nation building is to be proven a falsehood of its perpetrators, should we not also be spreading LGBT rights both abroad, and most pertinently at home?

Till then, not only do we do a disservice to the true meaning of democracy the world over, but we also stand silently by, pretending we are the good-doers (to paraphrase George W. Bush), all the while more and more Assefs are birthed and all the while more and more Hassans and women like the one in the stadium are irrevocably victimized.

The Kite Runner, both book and film, need to be praised for many reasons--largely for breaking the ice on the issues of sexuality in the Islamic world at large and in the barbaric microcosm of the Taliban and al Qaida.

If nothing else drives all this home, think on this: The young actors playing Assef, Hassan, and the older Assefís sex slave were in fear of reprisal for simply having acted in those provocative scenes. The filmís producers delayed its release to allow the boys to leave Kabul for temporary shelter abroad. If the mere fiction of homosexuality is so threatening to these closed and homophobic societies, how much must the real deal completely shake them to the core?

There can be no real progress in the enlightenment of segments of Islam (particularly groups like the Taliban and al Qaida) unless the hatred of women and gays is addressed and obliterated. And that in turn wonít be possible unless those who have charged themselves with spreading democracy there address and obliterate their own misogyny and their own homophobia. Because as the story of The Kite Runner illustrates, the kite can only soar and win the battle with the other kites if the string it flies on is strong, resilient and skillfully maneuvered by us humans.



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