'Kite Runner': Danger On and Off the Screen

Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada, left, and Zekeria Ebrahim star in the film, whose premiere has been postponed to safeguard the young actors.
Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada, left, and Zekeria Ebrahim star in the film, whose premiere has been postponed to safeguard the young actors. (By Phil Bray -- Dreamworks)
By John Ward Anderson and William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 5, 2007

KABUL -- On a dusty street in south Kabul that still bears the scars of three decades of fighting, a 12-year-old boy is living the next chapter of "The Kite Runner," the best-selling book about friendship, betrayal and redemption in war-ravaged Afghanistan.

Last year, filmmakers came to the Afghan capital and, intent on bringing the story to the screen, auditioned 5,000 youngsters for starring roles. They plucked two local boys from obscurity and cast them as Amir, the privileged child who is the movie's narrator, and Hassan, his loyal, if underprivileged, companion.

For Zekeria Ebrahim, an eager and affable schoolboy with cheerful brown eyes, playing the role of Amir brought poignant reminders of his own past. Sitting cross-legged on his family's living room floor this week, he recounted his unscripted crying when acting in a scene about the loss of his character's mother, and explaining to the film crew how his own father had been killed in a rocket attack in Kabul just before his birth.

Now, in another strange blurring of fiction and reality, the filmmakers -- who shot the movie in China because of security concerns in Afghanistan -- have delayed the planned Nov. 2 release of "The Kite Runner" by six weeks while working to get Zekeria and the other child star, Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada, out of the country.

The move follows warnings that the two boys could face reprisal attacks over a scene in which Hassan, played by Ahmad Khan, is raped by an ethnic Pashtun thug. The incident is crucial to the plot, because Amir witnesses the assault on his friend -- whose father is a servant to Amir's wealthier family -- and does not intercede. The episode plagues Amir with guilt and leads to his search for atonement as an adult.

Abdul Latif Ahmadi, president of Afghan Film, the state-run film company, said he and many others repeatedly warned "The Kite Runner" filmmakers, including producer E. Bennett Walsh and director Marc Forster, that that scene could provoke dangerous problems among religiously conservative Afghans, who might find it insulting. Such outbursts followed the release of the Indian movie "Kabul Express" last January, Ahmadi said. Parts of that film were considered demeaning to ethnic Hazaras, prompting death threats against the film's producer and an Afghan actor who fled the country.

"This is the mentality of the people in Afghanistan," which has a 28 percent literacy rate, Ahmadi explained. "People don't realize that it's not true. When they watch a film, they accept it -- it's real, why did they do it?"

Ahmadi and Nabi Tanha, 34, a veteran Afghan film star who plays Hassan's father, Ali, said the moviemakers had promised to cut the scene, but didn't.

"When we were filming in China, I talked to the director and told him that we should not shoot this scene, that Ahmad Khan's father would not agree and would not allow his kid in the movie and would go home, and the director said the scene would not be in the movie," Tanha said, explaining that he, too, now fears for the welfare of himself and his family.

" 'The Kite Runner' is very famous, and when it comes to Afghanistan, everybody will want to see it," he said. "Either people will think that the rape really happened, or maybe it will only be part of a movie, but it will still shame them. Either way, it will be a disaster."

The controversy is overshadowing the release of the highly anticipated film, which was adapted for the screen by Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks studios. Megan Colligan, head of marketing for Paramount Vantage, the film's distributor, said the movie will now appear in limited release in the United States on Dec. 14 and then reach many more screens in January. The film will not be shown in Afghanistan, but it's extremely likely that pirated DVDs will circulate almost immediately after the movie's release.

Colligan said the filmmakers and studio have been in weekly contact with the principal at the boys' school and that they have been working with other consultants, including a retired CIA operative, to gauge how the film might be received in Afghanistan and whether the Afghan actors, especially the boys, would be in any danger.


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