Hollywood in Dari

With "Kite Runner" Khaled Hosseini has landed an international success. The film adaptation of his novel strove for authenticity. The film itself, however, has created quite a stir and elicited tension between various ethnic groups. Amin Farzanefar reports

​​Since the publication of Khaled Hosseini's "Kite Runner" in 2004 the book has sold around eight million copies – an international success that cleverly links an individual fate with big politics. The major thread that holds the narrative together is the friendship between the young Hazara Hassan and the rich Pashtun Amir, told against the backdrop of Afghanistan's history: the era before the civil war, the Soviet invasion, then the Taliban's reign of terror.

Hosseini's novel was virtually a manifesto for the Afghan diaspora. For Western readers it throws a new light on a country associated primarily with the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and opium.

When Paramount hired Hollywood director Marc Forster – responsible for the Oscar-nominated "Monsters Ball" – to shoot the film adaptation, there was good reason to anticipate a lot from the 18-million-dollar project. In fact, Forster actually endeavored to achieve the greatest possible authenticity even before he started shooting the film.

Afghan "authenticity advisors" helped him reconstruct the historical environment, and the casting auditions took him to Afghanistan, where he finally found his main actors: Pashtun Zekiraya Ebrahimi, 11, and 13-year-old Hazara Ali Danesh Bakhtyari who were to embody the friendship that reached beyond the boundaries of ethnicity and class.

Filming with bodyguards

​​For German-Swiss Forster there was no question but that the film be shot in the original language, Dari. That an American team, however, was filming an Afghan story created an uproar. Because of the dangerous situation the film had to be shot in China, and the team was accompanied by a US antiterrorist unit.

The outcome is quite respectable. Narrated in the film is a story that spans several decades, continents, and crises with the powerful pathos of a Bollywood epic, yet the film always remains very realistic. Talk about Zakariya and Ali receiving best actor awards is fully justified.

In Afghanistan "Kite Runner" has since been censored. The head of the national film agency, Ahmed Latifi, himself a director, fears riots. The stone of offence is the implied rape of Hassan by a gang of Pashtun youth. The scene, which seems quite decent to Western eyes, appears to be more than scandalous for some representatives of ethnic groups in Afghanistan. The Shiite Hazara feel they are humiliated in the victim role, while the Sunnite Pashtuns, in turn, are tired of always being portrayed as the scapegoat.

In a globalized world an individual film is not suitable as a medium for dialogue. When set in another cultural context, seemingly harmless or well-meaning content suddenly reveals an unsuspected explosive potential, especially when individual fates are elevated to ethnic, religious symbols and representatives.

What is then presented in the film as "realistic" is suddenly projected into an imaginary space of slights and prejudices. After receiving massive threats the child actors of "Kite Runners" had to be flown out of the country.

Having fun at the expense of the Hazara

​​To complicate matters, "Kite Runner" also appeared on the scene a time when feelings were already running high. The recently released Indian film "Kabul Express", a Bollywood action film (directed by Kabir Khan) had enjoyed some vulgar fun at the expense of the Hazara, which culminated in demands for the death penalty to be imposed on one of the actors, who was then forced to flee the country.

Rumors, accusations, and threats were loud before the release of "Kite Runner". Because of Afghanistan's high illiteracy rate it is doubtful that Hosseini's pacifist story is well known. But Afghans are big lovers of cinema, and because movie theaters are scarce due to the civil war and the Taliban, most films are seen on DVD.

Since pirated copies appeared on the market a few weeks after the official world premiere, Paramount Pictures resorted to a radical measure and postponed the Afghan premiere by six weeks.

This delay was to give them enough time to take the child actors to safety after they completed their school exams. At present they are living in an unknown place in the United Arab Emirates. Whether they will ever be able to return to their home country is written in the stars.

Amin Farzanefar

© Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce


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