The war in Afghanistan: Paramount is starting to sweat bullets over The Kite Runner.
Perhaps you've read the New York Times report about concerns over the safety of the child actors in the film, which is based on Khaled Hosseini's best-selling novel. Or perhaps you heard your Hollywoodland correspondent's even earlier report on NPR in which one of the child stars and his father said that they were misled about the nature of the film and that they are now afraid of what might happen after it's released. The movie was supposed to hit theaters in November. Now it's been pushed back several weeks to give Paramount time to figure out how to protect the three children who may be at risk.
Like the book, the movie portrays two boyhood friends who must deal with political strife, and ethnic and class conflicts. In one pivotal scene, one of the boys—Hassan—is raped by a youth who later becomes a Taliban leader. Various parties might be offended by the film's depiction of life in Afghanistan: the Taliban, other fundamentalists, members of the Hazara minority who will not like the portrayal of their bitter persecution.
But the rape may be the most sensitive issue in the film. Ishaq Shahryar, who served as Afghanistan's first post-Taliban ambassador to the United States, says that the depiction will destroy the lives of Ahmad Kahn Mahmidzada, who plays the victim, and his family. "The consequences will be terrible," he says. "To be raped or to be gay over there—it's unfortunately absolutely unacceptable." The stigma is so great that even a fictional depiction is bad—worse, says Shahryar, because "the whole world will see it."
In July, Paramount got nervous enough to dispatch former CIA counterterrorism officer John Kiriakou to talk to experts in Washington and Kabul and evaluate the risk. He said unequivocally that the kids had to leave Afghanistan before the film is released. Paramount is working to relocate the three actors and their families, though it's unclear whether they will decide to leave and how long they might stay away.
The filmmakers have repeatedly said they had no inkling of the danger during the making of the film. "Nobody that we were working with [in Afghanistan] ever said this could be anything but a positive thing for these kids and their families and for their culture," says producer Rebecca Yeldham. "There was such joy and enthusiasm for the sincerity and seriousness of our approach."
The filmmakers say the situation has changed because of escalating violence in Afghanistan. But former Ambassador Shahryar says that has little to do with the danger facing the children, which involves long-standing taboos in Afghan culture. "I think in cases like this, all times are bad—nothing to do with the [idea that] the situation is worse now," he says. Paramount's own consultant concurs that the filmmakers walked into this situation naively at best.
It is interesting how filmmakers can invest so much time and so many resources into creating authenticity on movies set in a different place and time. And then they claim ignorance about the very subject that they've been studying.
Yeldham, the producer, says Ahmad Jan Mahmidzada—the father of the then-12-year-old schoolboy recruited to play Hassan—has falsely accused the Kite Runner team of misleading him about the film by downplaying its dark elements. But they confirm young Ahmad Kahn's account that he balked at playing the scene.
Yeldham says the scene was in fact depicted in a less harrowing manner than originally planned, in part "out of respect for concerns of the families and out of respect for the culture." (Apparently, the filmmakers had some inkling of these issues after all.) She also said that the studio wanted to be sure the movie got a PG-13 rating so it could "reach out and touch audiences around the world of all ages."