The Movies of Marc Forster, Part Two: The Kite Runner
Directors and their stories
Some directors make films that are easily identifiable as their own. Having just seen To Rome with Love (2012), for instance, it was and is easily identified as a Woody Allen movie, and not just because he has a part in it. In most of Allen’s movies, one of his characters is a stumbling, semi-successful artist asking himself (and the film audience) how in the absence of God he should see, or understand, life. Wes Anderson, is another such “auteur.” Most of his movies, of which Moonrise Kingdom (2012) is only the latest, tell their stories as comedies from the perspective of someone frozen in delayed adolescence.
But other directors cannot be so easily typed. They take pleasure in bringing to the screen a variety of stories that cross genres and style, and which have few common identifiable themes between them. Marc Forster fits here. Stranger Than Fiction, which I discussed in my last column, was a surreal romantic comedy; Monster’s Ball is a gritty, racially charged drama about death row prisoners and their guards; Quantum of Solace was the second highest grossing James Bond movie of all time; Finding Neverland is an English period drama, using the story of the author of Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie, to explore the reaches of the imagination; Machine Gun Preacher tells the true story of an ex-gang biker who is converted to Christianity and finds himself in Africa fighting the Lord’s Resistance Army who conscript young boys to fight and kill; and The Kite Runner brings to the screen the bestselling novel that follows two young boys in Afghanistan through their lives.
Marc Forster: The strength of story
Here is what happened to me when I saw Marc Forster’s The Kite Runner (2007), a story of betrayal, cowardice, and redemption. Visually stunning and emotionally compelling, the movie allowed me to enter into another world and to find myself in it. It wasn’t just that I had warm memories of flying kites as a child, though I do. Somehow the characters in this movie invited me to test my responses and actions against theirs. As I watched, I was challenged to think about who I am and what I might/should do.
If there is a commonality within these movies, it is found in the strength and power of their storytelling. Each film ushers its viewers into a unique world they might never have otherwise entered, and in the process, provides them insight into life’s possibilities and problematics (with the possible exception of the Bond movie which is just plain entertainment!). Forster’s stories offer viewers a series of hypothetical situations, imagined in such a way that we accept as believable the actions and response of his characters. What interests us in such make-believe is not these stories’ factuality, but their possibility. The reality of Forster’s stories somehow connects with our deepest sense of ourselves and our world. With each of his movies, we find ourselves asking, “What would we do in such a situation?”
Restore and renew
Chiefly set in Afghanistan, the movie tells the story of Baba, an educated, Afghan widower raising his young son Amir with the help of his much-loved servant, Ali, and his “son” Hassan, who is Amir’s best friend. Amir is the kite flier, the child who, like his kite, is expected to soar. Hassan is the kite runner — someone who serves the person holding the string. He is the one who projects where the kite will fall after it has been cut from its string and runs to retrieve it. Here is the primary metaphor of the movie. Though the story centers on the kite flier, it is ultimately the kite runner who must help restore and renew.
First separated from Ali and Hassan because of a tragic falling out between the two boys, then forced to flee the country because of wars and religious fundamentalism, the father and son end up in California, working at a gas station and selling goods at swap meets. But though Hassan has been hurt by Amir, he is faithful to his original friendship. And the movie ends with Amir’s trip back to Afghanistan at Hassan’s behest, a trip that proves to be for both of them a mission of redemption.
An opportunity for reflection
Based on the best selling novel (2003) by Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner offers viewers a glimpse into the tragedy of Afghanistan and its people, a land of breathtaking natural, rugged beauty that has been raped and destroyed by forces both within and without. But the movie also provides viewers an opportunity to insert themselves into the story — to ask not just what should have been done, but what “I” might do. Three examples come to mind:
When Amir, an upper class Pashtu, sees his friend Hassan, a member of the minority Hazara tribe, being attacked in a back alley by older Pashtu boys, he is confused and fearful, and does not intervene. This even after Hassan has days earlier rescued Amir from harassment by bravely threatening to hit the older boys with rocks in his loaded slingshot. Guilty at not coming to the defense of his friend as he is being sexually molested (the scene is horrible to watch, given the multiple levels of betrayal, but discreet in its depiction), Amir compromises not only his friendship, but himself. Silence brings with it a complicity that turns cankerous. As the movie ended, I wondered about my own silences — the many times I also have failed to speak.
Contrasting with Amir’s silence is his father, Baba’s, outspokenness. Even before the Russian invasion, Baba consistently acts out of principle, speaking out, for example, against the hypocritical mullahs. But his humanity and goodness come even more to the fore as father and son are forced to flee their homeland. In an act of courage that some might think foolhardy, Baba stands up to a foreign soldier who is about to take a young nursing mother off their truck filled with refugees so he can rape her. In a reprise of the earlier scene, we now don’t hear silence, but Amir’s father yelling at the soldier, “Where is your decency!” Baba is willing to die because of his. Such courage provides Amir the moral compass that allows him to live as a foreigner in a new culture, a strange land — and ultimately to find his own voice, his own courage. Again, the movie invited me to ask myself, “What would I be willing to shout against?”
At core, however, the movie is not about ethics, but friendship and family. In the four main characters, we discover a surprising kinship that transcends race and class, extending over time to provide new possibilities and personal redemption. Hassan, the gifted kite runner, will do anything for his friend. Even when he is betrayed, he remains loyal. Years later, when Hassan’s own son is in danger, he writes Amir: “I dream that my son will grow up to be a good person, a free person. I dream someday you will return to revisit the land of our childhood. I dream that flowers will bloom in the streets again…and kites will fly in the skies.” And in friendship Amir responds. I found myself with those same dreams — for Hassan and Amir, and for all those who have been displaced in the world today. And again, the movie encouraged me to ask, “What might I do to turn these dreams into reality?”
His stories, our stories
The Kite Runner takes what might easily become merely a news item on the 6 o’clock news and allows our imagination to grasp its personal dimensions. Here is the strength of Forster as a filmmaker — his stories become our stories. There are kite runners and kite fliers throughout the world. Their dreams deserve a chance to soar, if we would but help.
Rent a copy of Kite Runner and view it with some friends. Give them each a copy of Robert’s essay to prepare for the viewing. Then, when the film is over, discuss Robert’s “What would I do?” questions.
Order your copy of Robert’s book, Finding God in the Movies, (written with his wife, Catherine Barsotti) and learn why film can be such a valuable resource in understanding our times and drawing near to the Lord. You might also like to read Robert’s first essay on the films of Marc Forster.