Hollywood has never had a whole lot of interest in Afghanistan, save for the occasional secondary terrorist character. But with the release of “The Kite Runner” this week and “Charlie Wilson’s War” next week, moviegoers are about to get a shadow movie history of a longtime global hot spot.
Indeed, watched one after another, the films even form a timeline of events. It reads something like this:
1978: The Afghan family at the heart of “The Kite Runner” laments its situation, caught between homegrown religious extremists on one side and Communists on the other. As the family head, Baba (Homayoun Ershadi), puts it, “The mullahs want to rule our souls, and the Communists tell us we don’t have any.”
1979: Baba and his young son, Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi), flee Kabul for California amid the Soviet invasion.
1980s: In “Charlie Wilson’s War,” based on a true story, Texas congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), aided by a CIA agent (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a wealthy Houston socialite (Julia Roberts) work to funnel $1 billion worth of weapons into Afghanistan to defeat the Soviets. Their battle cry: “Let’s kill some Russians.” The Soviet army retreats in 1989.
1989: Wilson complains that for all the money spent to win the war, he can’t drum up $1 million to fix Afghanistan’s schools: “We go in there with our ideals, then we leave.”
2000: The adult Amir (Khalid Abdalla) goes home to Kabul to finish some unfinished business. His native country is now ruled by the brutal hand of the Taliban.
The films would seem to have little in common. “The Kite Runner” is an uplifting story based on a novel by an Afghan native, Khaled Hosseini. “Charlie Wilson’s War” is a biting satire that springs from a nonfiction book by the late “60 Minutes” producer George Crile.
But for Abdalla, the Scottish-born Egyptian actor who plays Amir in “The Kite Runner,” any film that puts a human face on Afghanistan is a valuable blow against common stereotypes.
“People think scary,” he said during a recent stop in Dallas. “They think Taliban. They think beard. They think bombs. It’s a list of negatives. I don’t know what the first positive thing on the list is. Hopefully it’s `The Kite Runner.’”
Actually, over the last few years, they think 9-11. Afghanistan was the first country the U.S. invaded after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Knock out Afghanistan, the thinking went, and you knock out Osama bin Laden. To a good many Americans, Afghanistan is synonymous with Al-Qaeda.
The irony, as Abdalla sees it, is that most Afghans have suffered under the rule of the very regimes with which they’re so often associated.
Abdalla, 27, knows the statistics: “It’s a country that at one point had 1.6 million refugees, the highest refugee population in the world. It lost over a million people during the war with the Soviets. When you think what that means to a country in terms of trauma and the stories it has to tell ... it’s a real shame that Afghanistan isn’t associated with that. Instead it’s associated with the people who have brutalized it.”
Smaller films have looked at life in Afghanistan since 9-11. Most notably, Siddiq Barmak’s “Osama,” released in 2003, told the story of a 12-year-old Afghan girl who must disguise herself as a boy to find work and support her mother. But “The Kite Runner” and “Charlie Wilson’s War” have a much higher profile.
In “The Kite Runner,” two childhood friends in Kabul, Amir ( Ebrahimi) and Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) are torn apart after a rape fueled by Pashtun/Hazara tensions leads to mutual shame. Years later, after Amir has become a successful writer in America, he returns to Kabul and sees the destruction inflicted by the Taliban firsthand.
In “Charlie Wilson’s War,” the title character is hailed as a Cold War hero for his determination to drive the Soviets from Afghanistan. Though the film plays as a sort of dark comedy, it ends with a haunting question to which the answer is now known: who and what filled the power vacuum once the Soviet war was over?
Of course, the country’s turmoil continues. Four child actors involved in the rape scene, including the two leads, have been removed from Afghanistan for their own protection after fears of retaliation were raised. Ethnic tension remains high in Afghanistan, especially when an American movie is involved. The children arrived safely in the United Arab Emirates last week.
Abdalla is hopeful that “The Kite Runner” will foster a greater understanding of Afghan peoples. He recalls a recent preview screening at the University of California, Los Angeles where an Afghan woman stood up to thank the filmmakers. “I feel represented,” she told them. “You have shared part of my history.”
That history is still being written - and now, it seems, filmed for all to see.