Behind the Controversial Scenes of 'The Kite Runner'

Afghan government bans film version of Khaled Hosseini best-seller.


Jan. 16, 2008— -- There is a lyrical, almost dream-like quality to the Afghanistan of Khaled Hosseini's childhood -- the world he captured in his best-selling book "The Kite Runner," which was turned into a powerful and affecting film by the same name.

Life seems to dance along like the brilliant kites the boys flew in his hometown of Kabul before the Soviet invasion, before the Taliban, and before the boy at the heart of the story loses his homeland, much like Khaled Hosseini had himself.

Those who reside in Hosseini's hometown will not be able to see the film. The government of Afghanistan has banned it from theaters and will not allow the DVD to be sold. The film has been banned because of a sensitive rape scene in the film, and because "It showed the ethnic groups of Afghanistan in a bad light," said Din Mohammad Rashed Mubarez, the deputy minister at the Ministry of Information and Culture.

The early scenes of "The Kite Runner" tenderly probe the relationship between two Afghan boys: Amir, the only son of a wealthy member of the powerful Pashtun majority, and his servant, Hassan, a member of the Hazara minority. Despite the cultural divide, they are close friends.

Though the film was shot in Western China, the director Marc Forster insisted on authenticity, even insisting the characters speak the Afghan dialect Dari.

"I think it was very key to make the film authentic," said Forster. "Because I think in Hollywood films in general, there's so much misrepresentation going on about the sort of the Muslim culture."

Casting the children was critically important, which is how Forster ended up in Kabul in 2005.

"When I was casting it was sort of this feeling in the air of a new beginning for Afghanistan, for Kabul, and everybody I met with," Forster said.

Forster, Hosseini and Paramount -- the movie studio that is releasing the film -- did not expect that the movie, which includes a sensitive child rape scene, would put the child actors involved in danger. In fact, Forster said that people had "embraced" them for "making a Hollywood film in an authentic way."

"I felt the story in the book will shine a light on Afghanistan, and it felt like there was a new beginning, so it never crossed my mind that any of these children would be in danger," he said.

But an investigation by a former CIA officer suggests the child actors may have reason to be fearful after movie's release.

The scene in question depicts Hassan being raped by a gang of bullies, while Amir watches and does nothing. While the scene is pivotal to the plot, it is now so laden in controversy that Paramount refused to provide a clip. Forster says the day of filming, Ahmad Khan, who plays Hassan, was upset.

"Ahmad came to me and said, 'Look, I don't feel comfortable of him pulling down my pants,' and I said, 'Fine, that's fine by me, let's not show it,'" Forster recalled. "And then we shot the scene and everything was fine."

In an interview after the filming was complete, Ahmad said that he and his family had not understood the controversial nature of the film, and were worried about the reaction it would create.

"Afghan people do not know much about cinema, and they will think this rape scene actually happened," the young actor said in an interview with BBC News. "So wherever I go, people will tease me about it."

It turns out, a bit of teasing may be the least of Khan's worries. After a complaint from Khan's family, Paramount hired former CIA officer John Kiriakou to assess the potential threat to Ahmad and other child actors.

Kiriakou, who was the leader of the team that captured Osama bin Laden's aide, Avu Zubaita, believes that pirated copies of the film are inevitably going to appear in Afghanistan and that both the rape scene and a scene depicting a homoerotic dance for a Taliban official, may well put the young Afghan actors at risk.

"It's not just an angry member of the Taliban that we should be worried about," said Kiriakou. "It's members of the these boy's families or tribes who might feel once they see the scenes in the film that the boys had shamed the family and would try and exact revenge."

Hosseini did not foresee that the safety of these children might be compromised when he agreed to have the novel is made into a movie.

"I thought there might be some controversy about, about the content of the film, and there has been about the content of my novel," said Hosseini. "But my novel has been out for four years, I've never received a death threat."

Hosseini, who was exiled from Afghanistan years ago and is now living in the United States, said that the reaction from the Afghan community to his novel was "overwhelmingly positive."

Even Kiriakou says he was surprised by the depth of the reaction he found in Kabul.

"[What] I wasn't prepared for or didn't anticipate was the widespread belief that this would inflame sectarian differences between Hazaras and Pashtuns," said Kiriakou. "I didn't expect so many people to say that there was a danger of rioting, or sectarian violence in the streets once the film came out. That was a surprise."

Kiriakou's pessimistic report spurred Paramount into action. "The Kite Runner's" release was delayed for more than a month, so that four of the boys and their guardians could be relocated out of the country -- at no small expense.

"Paramount told me to do my investigation, come back and tell them everything, and that cost was no issue," recalled Kiriakou. "They wanted to make sure that they did right by the children and by the families."

But doing right by the children has an unexpected result; at least temporarily, the boys are exiles of Afghanistan, just like Hosseini and the boys in the story, a fact that Hosseini says "hits hard."

A final thread of redemption ties the real world to the fiction: In a powerful scene, the character of Amir -- grown-up and living in safety and comfort in the U.S. -- is given a chance to return to Kabul to rescue the son of the boyhood friend he betrayed.

Forster takes comfort in that sentiment. "We all wish we could change things, or regret things," he said. "And this story really deals with this quality of forgiveness and redemption, which I think is so important."

While Forster regrets that the boys may have been put in danger because of the movie, he is focusing on what he can do now to help them.

"You can't go back and harbor in the past," said Forster. "It's always very much about the present -- what can I do now, what can I do to help them, what can we do to resolve the situation. What has happened has happened. I feel like life in general, you have to always do what you can in the moment and move on from there."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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