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.
The studio has offered to fly the boys to the United States later this month, where they could participate in the film's promotion and premieres. Afterward, they would reside in the United Arab Emirates at least through March, the start of the school year in Kabul.
Forster, the film's director, denied suggestions that he had offered to cut the rape scene from the film, and said that he had respected a request from Ahmad Khan's father not to show any of the boy's unclothed body. "Obviously," Forster said, "my primary concern is the safety and welfare of the kids."
Based on the 2003 book by Afghan American author Khaled Hosseini, the movie chronicles Amir's life in Kabul before the Soviets' 10-year occupation, his flight as a refugee and his return to Afghanistan during the Taliban regime to make amends. Sitting with his 85-year-old grandmother, Bibi Haji, Zekeria said he enjoyed playing the part of Amir, even though the story at times cut close to the bone.
In the movie and book, "when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and Amir emigrated to Pakistan -- that's exactly the same thing that happened to my family when the Taliban came," he said.
Bibi Haji said Zekeria's father was killed in a 1995 rocket attack while fetching medicine for his sick daughter. Before Zekeria was born, his mother fled with the rest of the family to a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, as the Taliban laid siege to Kabul and prepared to capture it. Later, she abandoned Zekeria and his sister to relatives, and they lived in Pakistan for about seven years.
Zekeria has been raised principally by his aunt Wahida Ebrahim, 28, in a large family house with 17 other relatives. For "The Kite Runner," he was paid $1,500 a week for three months of filming -- a king's ransom in Afghanistan, where the per capita income is about $335 a year. "We have invested the money in a bank for his future," the aunt said.
Zekeria, who is an ethnic Tajik playing an ethnic Pashtun, is not as concerned about the possible backlash as his co-star, Ahmad Khan, who like his film character is a Hazara, an ethnic minority that has long been oppressed.
"In the current situation, I don't think we'll have a problem," the aunt said. "But if the government changed and the Taliban returned, I don't know what could happen."
The aunt said the filmmakers have promised to help her and Zekeria establish their lives outside Afghanistan, and that they would welcome that chance.
Pending fame has not gone to Zekeria's head. Only his teacher and one classmate know he is starring in the movie, he said. Although he loves computer class, his school does not have an Internet connection, so Zekeria hasn't Googled the movie or his own name to see the growing number of references. The idea seems never to have occurred to him.
Zekeria, who said he wants to be a doctor, has never heard of Spielberg or seen movies such as "E.T." or "Jurassic Park" that have become staples of American childhood. But asked about his favorite movie, Zekeria didn't miss a beat: "The Magnificent Seven," the 1960 Yul Brynner western that figures into "The Kite Runner," whose narrator has seen it 13 times. Favorite actor? Steve McQueen, one of the Magnificent Seven.
In the book and movie, Amir and Hassan share a love for competitive kite-flying, a traditional sport among Afghan children, who lace their kite strings with tiny slivers of glass, then do battle with other kite fliers, aiming to slice their strings and have the last kite in the air.
Before traveling to China for filming, Zekeria and Ahmad Khan spent three months studying how to fly kites with Noor Agha, 53, a master kite builder and flier in south Kabul.
"There isn't anyone who makes better kites than me, or anyone who's better at fighting with them," Agha said while sitting on a grave outside his home and shaving long pieces of bamboo into kite frames. "In other countries you play football, but here we fly kites, and we study many of the same tactics. And if you don't think tactics are involved, I will fly mine and you can fly yours, and in two minutes you will lose your kite."
During the Taliban years, kite-flying was prohibited in Afghanistan, along with music, cinema, television, swimming, soccer and other leisure activities, Agha explained. So he, too, eventually escaped to Peshawar. But he continued finding solace in kite-flying.
"When I fly a kite, I imagine I am up with it and my spirit gets happy, even when I am fighting them for one or two hours," he said. "And until I get my kite back, my soul is up there with it."
Now that life is better in Afghanistan, perhaps "The Kite Runner" can help redefine the country, said Ahmadi, the head of the state film agency.
"When people talk about Afghanistan, they think of bin Laden and the Taliban and machine guns and mortars and killing, and we accept that," he said. "But life is still going on. We have marriage and love and tradition and religion, and maybe 'The Kite Runner' will help show people abroad the real face of Afghanistan."
Booth reported from Los Angeles. Special correspondent Javed Hamdard in Kabul contributed to this report.