What happens when a film that is meant to highlight the struggles of children (and indeed a whole nation) runs the risk of perhaps putting children at risk? This happens to be the debate over this weekend’s release of the film adaptation of the best selling book The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, a film that focuses on the lives of two Afghani boys in the 1970s whose friendship is tested by ethnic and religious strife.
One of the pivotal scenes in the movie is when a Pashtun boy, Amir, fails to act when he witnesses the rape of his Hazara friend Hassan. Because of this scene, the father of the actor who plays Hassan has criticized the movie for putting their family at risk. “The people of Afghanistan do not understand that it’s only acting or playing a role in a film,” said the father, who withheld his name for his own protection. His son, who is now 13, has also begun to publicly express concern over his rape scene in the film. “We won’t be able to walk in our neighborhood or in Afghanistan at all,” he said. Mounting concern over the safety of the two child actors (and their families) forced Paramount studios to delay the release of the film and to relocate the two actors and their families to an unnamed city in the United Arab Emirates.
But to what extent did the actors, or their families, know about the rape scene? The father of the actor that plays Hassan claims he did not know about it. “In Afghanistan, rape is not acceptable at all. This is against Afghan dignity. This is against Afghan culture,” the father said. “When we argued, they said ‘We will cut this part of the film. We will take it out of the script. This part will not be in the film.” But the film’s producers, Bennett Walsh and Rebecca Yeldham, contest this version of the story.
“When we visited with all the actors and their families in Kabul earlier this year, the families addressed their concerns directly with us and said they were fine with the content of the scene, as long as we portrayed it in a sensitive manner,” Walsh and Yeldham told the Associated Press. “We made this a priority and followed their specific instructions.” For the book’s author, who hails from Afghanistan and is now a Goodwill Envoy for the UN Refugee Agency, respecting the concerns of the child actors was of paramount concern.
“I thought it would raise eyebrows, but if anybody, either me or in the production, thought it would lead to the actors actually fearing for their lives, I don’t think anyone would have gone forward. Certainly, they would not have cast actors from Afghanistan,” he said. Hosseini sees the charged atmosphere over the film’s release as a barometer of how much things have gotten worse over the past few years. “The controversy reflects that things in Afghanistan have changed to some extent, certainly in the last year or two. Things have become more violent. It’s a more dangerous place than it was. It has slid back, and there’s a new element of criminality and violence there.”
Others involved in the film have been equally surprised. “Kite Runner” director Marc Forster, who is also slated to direct the next James Bond film, was surprised by the reaction because of the book’s popularity and universal praise. “It’s a book that sold 8 million copies around the world and what makes me sad is …it’s a story which doesn’t deal with violence and terrorism in that part of the world. It deals with healing. It deals with forgiveness,” he said. “So I really didn’t think there would be a controversy.” But with no ebb to the violence, it is a luxury to view the film outside the context of the daily violence or the ethnic conflicts that continue to plague the country.
Despite the controversy, the author feels that keeping the rape scene in the film is critical. “I don’t see how you could maintain the integrity of the film if you removed the scene. You’d pretty much have to scrap the whole thing,” remarked Hossaini. “The scene is pivotal. Without it the story falls apart because, in many ways, that moment, the act in the alley, is so reprehensible — a simple punching wouldn’t have the same effect.”
However in a country with a high illiteracy rate like Afghanistan, many people’s first exposure of the story will be through Forster’s camera and not Hosseini’s words. Nevertheless, some are confident that the essential story – and its virtues – will still shine through. The film’s screen writer, David Benioff, remains optimistic. “My fervent hope – insha’allah, as they say in the story – is people will see it as a story of healing, of redemption.”
Zahir Janmohamed is an associate editor of altmuslim.com and co-founder of the Qunoot Foundation. He is based in Washington, DC.