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Old 10-04-2007, 11:13 PM   #1
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'Kite Runner' film delayed for fear of Kabul violence

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The Kite Runner Is Delayed to Protect Child Stars

By DAVID M. HALBFINGER
New York Times, October 4


LOS ANGELES — The studio distributing The Kite Runner, a tale of childhood betrayal, sexual predation and ethnic tension in Afghanistan, is delaying the film’s release to get its three schoolboy stars out of Kabul—perhaps permanently—in response to fears that they could be attacked for their enactment of a culturally inflammatory rape scene.

Executives at the distributor, Paramount Vantage, are contending with issues stemming from the rising lawlessness in Kabul in the year since the boys were cast. The boys and their relatives are now accusing the filmmakers of mistreatment, and warnings have been relayed to the studio from Afghan and American officials and aid workers that the movie could aggravate simmering enmities between the politically dominant Pashtun and the long-oppressed Hazara.


In an effort to prevent not only a public-relations disaster but also possible violence, studio lawyers and marketing bosses have employed a stranger-than-fiction team of consultants. In August they sent a retired Central Intelligence Agency counterterrorism operative in the region to Kabul to assess the dangers facing the child actors. And on Sunday a Washington-based political adviser flew to the United Arab Emirates to arrange a safe haven for the boys and their relatives. “If we’re being overly cautious, that’s O.K.,” Karen Magid, a lawyer for Paramount, said. “We’re in uncharted territory.”

In interviews, more than a dozen people involved in the studio’s response described grappling with vexing questions: testing the limits of corporate responsibility, wondering who was exploiting whom and pondering the price of on-screen authenticity.

The Kite Runner, like the best-selling 2003 novel by Khaled Hosseini on which it is based, spans three decades of Afghan strife, from before the Soviet invasion through the rise of the Taliban. At its heart is a friendship between Amir, a wealthy Pashtun boy played by Zekiria Ebrahimi, and Hassan, the Hazara son of Amir’s father’s servant. In a pivotal scene Hassan is raped in an alley by a Pashtun bully. Later, Sohrab, a Hazara boy played by Ali Danish Bakhty Ari, is preyed on by a corrupt Taliban official.

Though the book is admired in Afghanistan by many in the elite, its narrative remains unfamiliar to the broader population, for whom oral storytelling and rumor communication carry far greater weight. The Taliban destroyed nearly all movie theaters in Afghanistan, but pirated DVDs often arrive soon after a major film’s release in the West. As a result, Paramount Vantage, the art-house and specialty label of Paramount Pictures, has pushed back the release of the $18 million movie by six weeks, to Dec. 14, when the young stars’ school year will have ended.

In January in Afghanistan, DVDs of Kabul Express—an Indian film in which a character hurls insults at Hazara—led to protests, government denunciations and calls for the execution of the offending actor, who fled the country. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Kite Runner actor who plays Hassan, Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada, 12, told reporters at that time that he feared for his life because his fellow Hazara might feel humiliated by his rape scene. His father said he himself was misled by the film’s producers, insisting that they never told him of the scene until it was about to be shot and that they had promised to cut it.

Hangama Anwari, the child-rights commissioner for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said on Monday that she had urged Paramount’s counterterrorism consultant to get Ahmad Khan out of the country, at least until after the movie is released. “They should not play around with the lives and security of people,” she said of the filmmakers. “The Hazara people will take it as an insult.”

The film’s director, Marc Forster, whose credits include Finding Neverland (2004), another film starring child actors, said he saw The Kite Runner as “giving a voice and a face to people who’ve been voiceless and faceless for the last 30 years.” Striving for authenticity, he said, he chose to make the film in Dari, an Afghan language, and his casting agent, Kate Dowd, held open calls in cities with sizable Afghan communities, including Fremont, Calif., Toronto and The Hague. But to no avail: Mr. Forster said he “just wasn’t connecting with anybody.” Finally, when Ms. Dowd went to Kabul in May 2006, she discovered her stars. “There was such innocence to them, despite all they’d lived through,” she said.

Mr. Forster emphasized that casting Afghan boys did not seem risky at the time; local filmmakers even encouraged him, he said: “You really felt it was safe there, a democratic process was happening, and stability, and a new beginning.” Ms. Dowd and E. Bennett Walsh, a producer, said they met in Kabul with Ahmad Khan’s father, Ahmad Jaan Mahmoodzada, and told him that his son’s character was the victim of a “vicious sexual assault.” Mr. Mahmoodzada seemed unmoved, they said, remarking that “bad things happen” in movies as in life. The boy, they continued, did not receive a script until a Dari translation was available on the set in western China. The rape scene was rehearsed twice, they said, once with the father present. On Tuesday the elder Mr. Mahmoodzada, reached by cellphone, rejected this account, and said he never learned the rape was a plot point until the scene was about to be shot. He also said his son never received a script.

Mr. Forster said that during rehearsals he considered including a shot of Hassan’s pants being pulled down, exposing his backside, and that neither Ahmad Khan nor his father objected. But the morning the scene was to be filmed, Mr. Forster found the boy in tears. Ahmad Khan said he did not want to be shown nude, Mr. Forster agreed to skip that shot, and the boy went ahead with the rape scene. Mr. Mahmoodzada confirmed this. In the final version of the film, the rape is conveyed impressionistically, with the unstrapping of a belt, the victim’s cries and a drop of blood.

The filmmakers said they were surprised when Ahmad Khan and his father told the Sunday Times of London in January that they feared for their lives. Mr. Walsh and Rebecca Yeldham, another producer, flew to Kabul to learn more in February.

The producers dispelled one fear, that the filmmakers would use computer tricks to depict the boy’s genitals in the rape scene. But Ahmad Khan’s parents also pressed for more cash, the producers said. On the advice of a Kabul television company, the boys had been paid $1000 to $1500 a week, far less than the Screen Actors Guild weekly scale of $2557, but far more than what Afghan actors typically receive.

In late July, with violence worsening in Kabul, studio executives looked for experts who could help them chart a safe course. Aided by lobbyists for Viacom, Paramount’s parent company, they found John Kiriakou, the retired C.I.A. operative with experience in the region, and had him conduct interviews in Washington and Kabul. “They wanted to do the right thing, but they wanted to understand what the right thing was,” Mr. Kiriakou said. There was one absolute: “Nothing will be done if it puts any kid at risk,” Megan Colligan, head of marketing at Paramount Vantage, said.

Mr. Kiriakou’s briefing, which he reprised in a telephone interview, could make a pretty good movie by itself. A specialist on Islam at the State Department nearly wept envisioning a “Danish-cartoons situation,” Mr. Kiriakou said. An Afghan literature professor, he added, said Paramount was “willing to burn an already scorched nation for a fistful of dollars.” The head of an Afghan political party said the movie would energize the Taliban. Nearly everyone Mr. Kiriakou met said that the boys had to be removed from Afghanistan for their safety. And a Hazara member of Parliament warned that Pashtun and Hazara “would be killing each other every night” in response to the film’s depiction of them. None of the interviewees had seen the movie.

Another consultant, whom Paramount did not identify, gave a less bleak assessment, but Ms. Colligan said the studio was taking no chances. “The only thing you get people to agree on is that the place is getting messier every single day,” she said. So on Sunday Rich Klein, a Middle East specialist at the consulting firm Kissinger McLarty Associates, flew to the United Arab Emirates to arrange visas, housing and schooling for the young actors and jobs for their guardians. (The United States is not an option, he said, because Afghans do not qualify for refugee status.)

Those involved say that the studio doesn’t want to be taken advantage of, but that it could accept responsibility for the boys’ living expenses until they reach adulthood, a cost some estimated at up to $500,000. The families, of course, must first agree to the plan.

“I think there was a moral obligation even before any of these things were an issue,” said Mr. Hosseini, the novel’s author, who got to know the boys on the set. “How long that obligation lasts? I don’t know that anybody has the answer to that.”
Anyone in here read the novel?

I remember reading about the controversy over Kabul Express that they mentioned, and there've been a few 'incidents' in India over 'socially sensitive' films made by expats, but I've never heard of anything quite like this. I wonder to what degree this situation might or should have been foreseeable?
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Old 10-04-2007, 11:23 PM   #2
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yes, have read the novel, and remember it as pretty much a movie between covers, that and the fact that it was one of the few books that brought me to tears (whilst reading it on an airplane, so people looked at me and asked me if i was okay).

have been following this ever so slightly -- it's hard to know how much responsibility a studio bears for this. it is true that there's some level of deception at all levels of filmmaking, but i think it would be a crime not to make something because some people aren't going to like it. films are made to make money, but that's not the only reason they are made, and it does seem as if the book had quite a bit of artistic merit that deserves to be brought to a wide audience.

it does come down to a Danish cartoon situation. i'm sorry, but if you're going to kill people over something in a freaking movie, it's hard not to get all, "yeah, well fuck you" about it and just "get the fuck over it."

i know, easy to say. but, honestly, grow up.
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Old 10-04-2007, 11:45 PM   #3
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Yes I read this book
and Life of Pi on the beach this summer.

There is a fairly graphic boy on boy rape and an implied man on boy rape in the book.

When I heard about the film I assumed they would get American children of that heritage to play the parts.
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Old 10-04-2007, 11:53 PM   #4
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Quote:
Originally posted by Irvine511
yes, have read the novel, and remember it as pretty much a movie between covers, that and the fact that it was one of the few books that brought me to tears (whilst reading it on an airplane, so people looked at me and asked me if i was okay).

have been following this ever so slightly -- it's hard to know how much responsibility a studio bears for this. it is true that there's some level of deception at all levels of filmmaking, but i think it would be a crime not to make something because some people aren't going to like it. films are made to make money, but that's not the only reason they are made, and it does seem as if the book had quite a bit of artistic merit that deserves to be brought to a wide audience.

it does come down to a Danish cartoon situation. i'm sorry, but if you're going to kill people over something in a freaking movie, it's hard not to get all, "yeah, well fuck you" about it and just "get the fuck over it."

i know, easy to say. but, honestly, grow up.
I find your answer a bit puzzling.

If you read the book
then you should have gotten a pretty good grasp of the culture and the danger.

They should not have used kids that would be at risk.
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Old 10-05-2007, 12:24 AM   #5
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I read the book and found it to be quite powerful and moving.

I'm not sure what to make of the current controversy over the movie, though I suspect the misunderstandings between the parents and filmmakers is the result of the difficulty in crossing the language barrier and the cultural differences as well.

In my work as a missionary, I've had the kind of experience where you think everything is okay and you've communicated everything clearly only to discover later that no, everything is NOT okay and even though they said they understood, they really didn't. I've also had the very frustrating experience of having someone tell me "yes" but really they mean "no" and I find out when they get all angry because I'm going ahead with something they said they agreed with.
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Old 10-05-2007, 12:29 AM   #6
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I've read the book. It was an interesting glimpse at Afghan culture. I don't think it was a great book by any means; and a lot of the time I got the feeling I'd read the story, but it just went by another name. I mostly find his writing to be on the maudlin side.

That said, it is not entirely surprising that the reaction would be such as it is.
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Old 10-05-2007, 12:37 AM   #7
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Quote:
Originally posted by anitram

That said, it is not entirely surprising that the reaction would be such as it is.
good

I'm not the only one.
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Old 10-05-2007, 01:41 AM   #8
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Quote:
Originally posted by anitram
I've read the book. It was an interesting glimpse at Afghan culture. I don't think it was a great book by any means; and a lot of the time I got the feeling I'd read the story, but it just went by another name. I mostly find his writing to be on the maudlin side.
It felt like a high schooler's assignment for a creative writing class to me; I wanted so badly to mark it up with a red pen. It probably would have been better as a film in the first place.

Anyway, this discussion has been in the news for a while. I do kind of wonder what the film makers were thinking (other than the desire for authenticity) when they paid young boys very little to film culturally sensitive scenes. It does seem a bit exploitative to me.
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Old 10-05-2007, 04:07 AM   #9
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Speaking as someone who has NOT read the book but has been following the controversy, I find the lit professor's comments to be the most interesting. About how his country was already scorched and you're going to burn it more for a fistful of dollars.

I gather that for his part at least, he seemed to be fretting at a phenomenon that seems to encompass most of the cultural, but esp the film, dialog between Westerners and the Middle East: a lack of positive role models and reinforced stereotypes. "What, a major Western Movie is finally going to be made about my people, and it's about a little boy who's raped? THIS is what Afghanistan is going to be forever, in the eyes of millions of people all over the world?"

Strange to say, I can appreciate this feeling a little bit. I didn't see Borat in the theater but finally got around to renting it recently. When I got to the infamous nude wrestling scene, yep, they were right, you DID need a strong stomach . That wasn't what shocked me however. It was the fact that, as they attacked each other, Borat's less-than-photogenic cameraman was babbling angrily in a language that, to my shock, I UNDERSTOOD EVERY WORD OF. And the stuff he was shouting to Sacha Cohen was, um, decidedly less than flattering. (You DON'T want to know.)

Shellshocked, I went to the end credits and yup, the actor, Ken Davidtian, was Armenian. And I'm half Armenian and speak it a little. I then went back and watched the scene several times more. And got angrier and more repulsed each time. To you folks, it's just a funny scene between Sacha Baron Cohen and an enormous, massively fat, jowly guy with repulsive mannerisms, whom we are meant to scorn as an absurd provincial simpleton from a faraway country that is little more than a backward peasant hack. (Yes, it's a satire and I KNOW all the layers and all that, but that's what Cohen was getting at.)

But since Armenians are NEVER shown in the movies, say, outside an Aram Egoyan movie, much less any speaking Armenian onscreen in a mainstream film, this made me unspeakably angry. And to have Armenians, one of the world's most ancient nations (hey, we were around as a nation, with our own king and currency since 500 BC, and are mentioned in the Bible,the current Armenian capital, Yerevan, has been around since 786 BC) and that's for starters. We've been called "the Jews of the Caucasus" and not just for our tragic history--but for our cultural achievements as well. There are over 1.6 million Armenian Americans in this country alone.

And this is how my people are depicted onscreen? In the manner of a greasy, fat, ugly guy with gross manners, with his genitals flopping around and his mouth in another guy's behind? All the while speaking the Armenian language? (I speak of the character, not the actor, of course. Cohen could have written the script much differently.)

Apparently Mr Davidtian didn't give a rat's ass that he was representing his people up there. I wouldn't have cared if he'd chosen to babble that filth in Kazakh, he'd be truly "in character." I mean, it would fit in with Cohen's satire about American perception of Kazakhs. But he was slighting his own people.

You guys may not have heard much but this caused a hell of a big stink in the Armenian-American community, and rightly so. If we were seen more on-screen it wouldn't matter so much. But if you're never depicted on-screen the few times you are, are VERY important. You don't want anyone distorting your precious moment in the sun...I'd rather take the "noble savage" approach, if there were no other depictions.

Yes, I know what you're all going to say--you're going to give me the aforementioned "we'd rather have the real thing, so we can be educated about what it's really like, than play the "noble savage" and not do the Afghnas a favor by insisting on seeing the world through rose-colored glasses." But I gather that every time one of these incidents happens, it's a flashpoint of cultural rage, at the West that has looked down on Middle Easterners as inferiors for centuries. I call it the "Vanished Gardens of Cordoba Syndrome." after Alec Guinness' immortalline from Lawrence of Arabia.

It's a sticky situation. But we Westerners don't trouble our heads as much about this stuff b/c we're used to being on the winning side, we largely call the global shots, cultural and otherwise, and there are plenty of glowing depictions of Western heroes, cultures, and stories onscreen to balance out whatever unflattering portraits that people like Scorcese might reveal of ourselves.

The situation is stickier here b/c this is, as you say, a film based on a book by an Afghan expat, who can blow off steam here in a way he never could at home. It was the same with "The Joy Luck Club" which was a huge hit here but made a huge stink in Japan for its depiction of the Rape of Nanking, which figures prominently in the story of one of the older members of the Club.

I'm not condoning potential violence, of course; but think of it.

This is a sad situation. I admire Paramount for wanting to do the right thing, but this can only lead to trouble. That said, I'm glad the film is getting made....if only to educate the West. It's an impossible situation.

This all said, I really have to get around to reading this, and "A Thousand Splendid Suns" too. Anyone read that yet?
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Old 10-05-2007, 08:37 AM   #10
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i dunno, maybe i'm just immune to getting upset over being stereotyped in the media. i mean, heck, i just saw "Cruising" for the first time last week, and i didn't see what the issue was, really. i am sympathetic, to an extent. but, gosh, it's just a movie.

i'm also pretty sure there's more to the movie than just the rape scene, but if people want to focus on that and get upset over that and start rioting, well, what can you do? are you supposed to depict Afghanistan as all puppies and rainbows just to be nice?

(ps -- *hated* the Life of Pi)
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Old 10-05-2007, 10:12 AM   #11
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so, just thinking about this on the way to work, and i'm wondering what a filmmaker is supposed to do.

1. hire non-Afghan kids (was Dakota Fanning not available) and hire white kids and risk offending Afghans that way (like when Miss Saigon opened and Asian groups in the US and UK were upset that most of the leads were white including Jonathan Pryce as The Engineer).

2. cut out the potentially offensive material and neuter the story (like, say, what Spielberg did in "The Color Purple" when he cut out the lesbianism, probably so he could get a PG-13 rating instead of an R)

3. retain authenticity by hiring actual Afghans and keep the story true to the novel.



i know what i'd do.

anyway, i find it silly to think that an entire culture is maligned because of an *incident* in the book. i don't think that all Afghans in the novel are portrayed as child ass rapers, in fact, the novel goes to great lengths to explore the culture in all of its aspects, so why would the movie be any different? this isn't like having a secondary or tiertiary character who's a walking stereotype and he's the only glimpse into whatever culture/group that the film provides. i.e., it's not a movie about, say, boarding school and the only gay character is the fastidious, self-loathing-and-student-loathing French teacher who's both attracted to and repulsed by his swaggering class of high school seniors. this is a movie set in Afghanistan, about Afghanistian, acted by Afghanis -- and if someone is going to worry about people getting upset because of, again, an *incident* in the movie, then we're moving into irrational [u]Satanic Versus[/u[ territory, and the worst thing to do, imo, is to apologize for the offense and lend credibility to what is an absurd overreaction.
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Old 10-05-2007, 11:48 AM   #12
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I want to read this book. The only book I've ever read about Afghanistan is "Meena". That was pretty graphic. She was the founder of Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.
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Old 10-05-2007, 12:51 PM   #13
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Quote:
Originally posted by Irvine511

anyway, i find it silly to think that an entire culture is maligned because of an *incident* in the book.
Yes, except that isn't the point. It's the perception of the people on the ground, and we are completely outside of their cultural boundaries. Do I think it's fit for them to riot and respond in this way? No, of course not. But at the same time, it was a relatively predictable response by a relatively predictable cultural mindset. And in that sense, I am not sure that the filmmakers proceeded in the best possible way.
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Old 10-05-2007, 01:07 PM   #14
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^ Right...I get the impression from all the articles I've read about this that the concern is that the film might stir violence between Afghans--not against the filmmakers, or against Westerners in Afghanistan. I don't think the issue per se is 'how our culture is portrayed in this film'--more that people won't grasp the implications of it being 'just a film'.
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Old 10-05-2007, 01:14 PM   #15
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so let's just not make any films at all.

and no cartoons that depict Mohammad either.
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