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An Afghan refugee who emigrated to Canada before studying film at UCLA, writer-director Tarique Qayumi revisits his homeland’s tumultuous recent past with Black Kite. World premiering in Toronto, Qayumi’s second feature is an intimate family drama set against a widescreen historical canvas. It stars one of Afghanistan’s best-known actors, Haji Gul, and was partly shot in Kabul in low-key guerrilla style to avoid attracting unwelcome attention from the Islamist factions that still hold sway in parts of the country.
By filtering five decades of history through the eyes of a single protagonist, a devoted kite-flyer from a troubled family, Black Kite inevitably invites comparison with Khaled Hosseini’s hugely successful 2003 novel The Kite Runner, which sold over 30 million copies and spawned a successful screen adaptation in 2007. But any such parallels will not be flattering, because Qayumi’s fable-like film is a much more prosaic and reductive take on similar dramatic material, lacking the fine-grained social detail, moral complexity and universal reach of Hosseini’s English-language best-seller. This worthy Canadian-Afghan co-production has obvious festival appeal, but commercial prospects will be thin.
Qayumi structures the story as a series of flashbacks from a grim jail cell where a bruised and bloody Arian (Gul) is spending his last night on Earth under threat of summary execution. A primitive Taliban court has declared him guilty of “the highest crime… activity against Sharia law”. This turns out to mean the harmless and long-established Afghan tradition of kite-flying, which was banned as un-Islamic by the murderous religious fundamentalists who ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, and who still remain a powerful insurgent force today.
From his cell, Arian reels back episodically through the decades, starting in the Sixties, when Afghanistan was a relatively liberal regime under a modernizing monarch. King Mohammed Zahir Shah makes education compulsory for boys and girls alike, but young Arian (Hamid Noorzay) is too obsessed with flying kites to pay much attention in class. He flunks his high school diploma, but convinces his illiterate parents he has passed.
A military coup removes the king in 1973, followed by Soviet invasion and occupation from 1979. Both are glibly summarized in fleeting archive newsreel montages. Meanwhile, Arian survives tragic loss, gets married and becomes a father himself. Fatefully, his kite-flying becomes a useful clandestine messaging tool for the anti-Russian Mujahideen, which risks getting him killed by both sides.
Following the Russian retreat in 1989, daily life in Kabul turns increasingly harsh. Once the Taliban fill the power vacuum, kites are banned along with dancing, singing, bird-keeping and education for girls. Bowing to pressure from his young daughter Seema (Zahra Nasim), Arian secretly fills his apartment with beautiful kites, and gradually musters the courage to fly them outside under cover of pale moonlight. This stirring private protest against joyless authoritarian rule is a heroic gesture, but the price of discovery is dangerously high.
Incorporating documentary footage to cover momentous historical events, and dreamy animated kite-flying sequences to symbolize Arian’s romantic inner rebellion, Black Kite is admirably eclectic in style. But the central drama is deadeningly flat, a chessboard of mono-dimensional ciphers arranged across a schematic grid of good and evil. There is scant political or historical context here, and minimal psychological depth. Most of the sets are interiors with the blandly sanitised look of daytime soap opera. The twinkly score, by Benedict Taylor and Naren Chandavarkar, is intrusive and cloying.
Crucially, despite his close-up focus on great cruelty and national tragedy, Qayumi fails to generate much emotional engagement. His charmless protagonist is a key weakness here. Black Kite presents Arian as an eternal innocent, but he mostly behaves like a self-absorbed man-baby fixated on nothing but kites from early childhood to middle age. A simple-minded dupe unwittingly caught up in his nation’s turbulent history, Arian emerges from this well-intentioned but dull drama as Afghanistan’s answer to Forrest Gump.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
Production Company: Aquatinter Films Ltd
Cast: Haji Gul, Hamid Noorzay, Masoud Fanayee, Leena Alam, Hadi Delsoz, Sin Mim Alavi, Zahra Nasim, Kaka Nabi, Sameer Nasim
Director, screenwriter, cinematographer: Tarique Qayumi
Editors: Tarique Qayumi, Tajana Prka
Producer: Tajana Prka
Music: Benedict Taylor, Naren Chandavarkar
Production designer: Tajana Prka
Animator: Kunal Sen
Sales company: The Film Sales Company
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