'Kite Runner' Makes Big-Screen Debut The film adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's novel about friendship, betrayal, rivalry and redemption in Afghanistan was released in theaters this weekend. The film's release was delayed out of concern for the safety of Afghan child stars.
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'Kite Runner' Makes Big-Screen Debut

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The movie version of Khaled Hosseini's 2003 best-selling novel "The Kite Runner" opened in theaters across the country this weekend. It's the story of a friendship between two boys in Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion - how one betrayed the other and many years later found an opportunity for redemption. As an adult, Amir, the central character, now living as a writer in California, receives an unexpected phone call from an old family friend which sets him on journey to write his past.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Kite Runner")

Mr. SHAUN TOUB: (As Rahim Kahn) You should come home.

Mr. KHALID ABDALLA (Actor): (As Amir) Home? I don't know if now's such a good time.

Mr. TOUB: (As Rahim Kahn) It's a very bad time, but you should come. There's a way to be good again, Amir. It will not be easy, but you must come, Amir.

Mr. ABDALLA: (As Amir) (Speaking in foreign language)

Mr. TOUB: (As Rahim Kahn) And you're a good man.

Mr. ABDALLA: (As Amir) (Speaking in foreign language)

Mr. TOUB: (As Rahim Kahn) (Speaking in foreign language)

Mr. ABDALLA: (As Amir) (Speaking in foreign language)

CONAN: A clip from the new movie "The Kite Runner." The film's release was delayed due to controversy over a rape scene crucial to the storyline but would spark fears of reprisals against the Afghan boys in the scene. We've asked author Peter Bergen, who travels frequently to Afghanistan, to give us a non-movie critic's review of the film. If you'd like to talk with him about the movie, how it portrays Afghanistan, the Soviet invasion and the Taliban, our number is 800-989-8255; e-mail, talk@npr.org. Or you can join the conversation on our blog, npr.org/blogofthenation.

Peter Bergen is the author of two books on al-Qaida. The most recent is "The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader." He joins us here in Studio 3A.

And it's nice to have you, as always, on the program, Peter.

Mr. PETER BERGEN (Author, "The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader"): Neal, yeah. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And first, what did you think of the movie?

Mr. BERGEN: I thought it was great. It's very moving. It's very well done. It's very faithful to all of the aspects of Afghanistan. I was there under the Taliban. It recreated that moment pretty well. It was - it's a great movie and there's no doubt about it.

CONAN: Had you read the book?

Mr. BERGEN: I had not, actually. So, apparently, the book and the movie are fairly - the movie is apparently quite faithful to the book.

CONAN: Let me ask you about the depiction of, particularly, pre-Soviet invasion Kabul that we see in the film. A beautiful house - at least an elite in Kabul, which is well-educated and cosmopolitan.

Mr. BERGEN: Yeah. And drinking and not in favor if the mullahs. And one the interesting things about the movie is that you see - the movie doesn't hit you over the head with this point, but you see women walking down the street. And while they're not wearing miniskirts, they're certainly not wearing burkas, that where - or they're dressed in a kind of Western way. And the movie doesn't make much of a point of that. It just shows that. And that's pretty much true to what Kabul was before the Soviet invasion.

I mean, I've read guidebooks about Kabul and they were written in the '60s and people talk about how men basically wore Western-style suits, women wore, you know, the kinds of things that you might wear in Paris or, obviously, that was perhaps the elite. But nonetheless, that completely disappeared under the Taliban. And really, it still really hasn't come back. I mean, the Taliban imported the burka for everybody, of course, in Afghanistan, and particularly in Kabul. And that has not, you know, really changed that dramatically even six years after the fall of the Taliban.

CONAN: Amir's father, also an important character in the movie, says at one point before the Soviet invasion, the mullahs want to save our souls. The communist tell us we don't have one.

Mr. BERGEN: Right. And of course, you know, Afghanistan has suffered, you know, very greatly as a result of that dispute - whether it was the communist killing a million Afghans and then, of course, the Taliban who imposed their own brutal regime.

CONAN: And that, I guess, is another question. How - you say the scene - I guess, the principal scene we see of the Taliban is this - the famous description I guess everybody knows - the half time at a soccer game in the city's football stadium where a woman is literally stoned to death.

Mr. BERGEN: Yeah. I mean, that wasn't a routine occurrence under the Taliban. I don't want to present myself as a Taliban defender. But I mean, certainly, there's some truth to that. I mean, you may recall, Neal, the famous pictures of a woman being executed not by stoning, but by - with a rifle which was -that's the real (unintelligible) did happen. The Taliban aspired to be a totalitarian regime, a theocracy. They were pretty disorganized.

So particularly as this time went on, you know, they became more and more unpopular. They actually lightened up a bit. They stopped doing some of these more egregious practices as the regime went on. But nonetheless, I mean, the movie's a movie. So it distills certain essences together and it does that accurately. But the notion the Taliban were routinely stoning women to death, I think was - is overdone if people take that message from the movie.

CONAN: We're talking with author Peter Bergen about the movie version of Khaled Hosseini's "The Kite Runner." If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255, e-mail us, talk@npr.org.

The movie also paints a tremendous contrast. Amir, as an adult, goes back to his house that we have seen in this splendor earlier before the Soviet invasion and it's a wreck. The house is still standing, but all the trees around it have been - it's been denuded of trees, it's been - there's no green anywhere.

Mr. BERGEN: Yeah. Well, of course, as a result of war - the Soviet war and then the civil war and the Taliban, you know, that picture of Kabul is unfortunately quite an accurate one. You know, when we talk about reconstruction of Afghanistan, it's sort of a misnomer. You're actually starting from scratch because the whole place was destroyed and Kabul - under the Taliban - which I visited there were no businesses, there were no cars, it was - there were just people on bicycles. It was a very depressing and gloomy place and I think the movie is very true to that.

CONAN: One of the central activities in the picture is, of course, the battles with the kites in the skies over Kabul, a glorious scene at the beginning of the movie where Amir and his friend, the Hazara boy, who was the son of his father's servant. Well, they say under the Taliban, they've even banned the kite flying.

Mr. BERGEN: Well they banned everything. I mean, they banned chess, they banned kites, they banned any form of card games, they banned - I mean - it's an oppress, Neal, to think of the things they didn't ban. I mean, in fact, the Taliban mullah was famously asked: Well, given all the things you banned, what are you suggesting for leisure time? And he said, well, go into a park and pray. I mean, so that was their view of anything that fell outside the religious sphere.

CONAN: Yet, it also depicts when Amir goes to the Taliban leaders' house. The guards are drinking and playing cards. Is that sort of hypocrisy?

Mr. BERGEN: Well, certainly there was some hypocrisy. I think that's probably overdoing a little bit. We know that the Taliban actually took photographs of each other, even though that was against the rules. We know that, of course, the scenes where there is a sort of "dancing boy," quote, unquote is being used by the Taliban for sexual favors. I mean, that's not entirely implausible because Pashtun leaders have, you know, because of these restrictions against meeting women outside your family, it is not uncommon for teenage boys to be used for that kind of thing.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the line. And again, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. And this is Amanda(ph). Amanda with us from Ottawa, Illinois.

AMANDA (Caller): Hi. Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Sure.

AMANDA: I certainly think you may have sort of addressed what I was going to say, which is that I loved the book, but I found the scenes, particularly when he returns to Afghanistan with the whole child exploitation just two much. And it felt to me like the author was trying to demonize the Taliban when they really did need to be demonized to that degree.

Mr. BERGEN: Well, I mean, you know, the Taliban were undoubtedly not the world's greatest bunch of people, but they weren't the Khmer Rouge. And so if -on that scale of whether the Khmer Rouge killed, you know, 30 percent of their own population, the Taliban - they, you know, they did a lot of bad things. The movie, I think, is a desolation of some things that are true, but if a viewer went to the movie thinking that that explained everything about the Taliban, that would be wrong, because the one thing they did bring to Afghanistan was peace and security, which was one of the reasons they were quite popular when they first emerged.

CONAN: Also, they suppressed the growth of poppies.

Mr. BERGEN: Indeed.

CONAN: And the drug trade. Thanks very much, Amanda.

AMANDA: Thank you.

CONAN: We mentioned the family in the film are Pashtuns, the major players in Afghanistan, the privileged. The boy is portrayed as a Hazara. Tell us who that is and is that depiction accurate of him as a sort of a second-class citizen?

Mr. BERGEN: Well, it think that depiction, it was quite accurate. The Hazaras have long been discriminated against in Afghanistan because: A, they are Shia and they are sorts of rather small minority; B, they appear as a kid in the film Hassan, looks - he looks Asiatic. The Hazaras actually look very different from those Afghans. They've been long discriminated against and actually, they are one of the - in the post-Taliban era, they are one of the good news stories in Afghanistan, Neal, is the Hazara have done pretty well. They've gone from being, you know, not second-class citizens, but fifth-class citizens to really enjoying more equal rights. The only female governor of Afghanistan, interestingly, is a Hazara in the area where mostly Hazaras live in Bamiyan.

CONAN: Let's get another caller online. This is Prishant(ph), I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly, calling us from San Francisco.

PRISHANT (Caller): Yeah, am I - I'm on?

CONAN: Yes you're on the air, go ahead please.

PRISHANT: Yeah, I just wanted to point out that this movie and the book have done a lot to change the positions abroad of Afghanistan. Usually, when you see CNN or BBC, you think that is the country of, you know, fundamentalist, there's all rocks and gravel out there. But they are really people like any - at any other place. And I think from the media coverage, this book have done so much to bring the fact out.

Mr. BERGEN: Well, I mean, I think there's two answers to that. I certainly agree with the general proposition, but it's a more nuanced picture of Afghanistan than we often see in the media. However, I mean, as Neal mentioned earlier, the fact that these two kids have actually had to be taken out of the country because they may well face reprisals because of the ethnic tensions in Afghanistan, and it's a movie, it's not true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Fiction.

Mr. BERGEN: It's fiction. But the fact that they - the producers actually does in a very responsible way, I think, delayed the release of the movie for several weeks because of this issue, I mean, I think that speaks as some of the kind of contemporary truce in Afghanistan. The ethnic tensions are much lower than they used to be, but they continue to exist.

CONAN: Prishant, let me ask you, are you an Afghan?

PRISHANT: No, I'm originally from India.

CONAN: From India. Okay, well then, thanks very much. We appreciate it.

PRISHANT: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. The question I was going to ask him, Peter, is another community it depicts is the Afghan Diaspora. The communities of Afghans who live in exile, in the case of the movie, in Freemont, California, but it could've been shot in Queens, New York as well. There are other places where groups of Afghans live. To your mind - you visited some of those communities, I know - is that picture accurate?

Mr. BERGEN: I think it is. Because, of course, the people who could leave were the middle class and the educated and the people who had the financial resources to leave and which, of course, hollowed out to so much of the expertise in the country. So yeah, I mean, the picture you see of this - of course, you know, one of the main characters in the film ends up working in the gas station having had a successful career as a diplomat in Afghanistan. That, unfortunately, is true. But many immigrants in this country, you know, who have forcibly sent from their homes.

CONAN: And the general also is a commanding figure, a man of great respect within the community - so. We're talking with Peter Bergen about the film version of Khaled Hosseini's best-selling novel, "The Kite Runner." 800-989-8255 is the number to call if you'd like to join the conversation. E-mail, talk@npr.org. This is TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And here's a comment form John(ph) in Palo Alto from our blog. Hello, NPR. I just got back from watching the film "The Kite Runner," and my eyes and cheeks are still running moist, my soul slightly aching. I highly recommend this movie. It follows the novel like the youngest of twin sisters duplicating every move of her elder twin sister making moves on the world. I guarantee you'll give this three thumbs up or I'll pay your price of admission. Please try to pay the senior citizen rate. Thanks again. That from John in Palo Alto, California.

And there are people who've said that, you know, maybe the film is too sentimental and too pat. Amir going back to Afghanistan asks his cab driver: Are things as bad under the Taliban as I've heard?

Mr. BERGEN: Well, I mean, that's not such a bad question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BERGEN: Don't forget that there was almost no media coverage of what's going on under the Taliban. The only permanent presence of media that the Taliban would allow was the BBC and at a certain point, Al Jazeera. So, you know, the fact there's somebody coming from the United States would want to hear directly, is it as bad as it's said to be under the Taliban, is a reasonable question I think.

CONAN: Let's get Tim(ph) on the line. Tim calling us from Traverse City in Michigan.

TIM (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi there.

TIM: Hi. I saw your movie. It was fantastic.

CONAN: Peter, regrettably, had nothing to do with the movie. He just went to see it. And in fact, I think, we owe him $9.50 because he had to go see.

TIM: Right. I'm curious about the kites. Do they really fly kites that much in…

Mr. BERGEN: Oh, absolutely. This is a - you know, this is an Afghan obsession. And of course they are now flying kites again.

CONAN: And those…

TIM: Thank you.

CONAN: Those paper kites, they don't use exotic fabrics?

Mr. BERGEN: I'm not so (unintelligible) with, like, the materials used.

CONAN: I see. You mentioned the ethnic tensions, the Hazara boys raped by some Pashtun boys who later, of course, grow up to be Taliban bullies as well. But nevertheless, is it the rape scene that you think causes the controversy or is it the ethnic abuse that causes the controversy?

Mr. BERGEN: Oh, I think it's the rape scene. I mean, even though the rape scene is dealt with in the movie in a way that it's, you know, it's suggested rather than depicted. That is enough in Afghanistan. Of course, it's - you know, it's all about the honor, the tribe, and these kinds of issues. And the fact that the producers got these boys out, I think, speaks for itself.

CONAN: The picture of Kabul today, if we take away that image of dust and devastation, is that an accurate picture of Kabul today?

Mr. BERGEN: Well, there is - you know, Kabul today, you know, has got traffic jams and three million people living there in a city that had 500,000 people living there. So it's - you know, it's a jam, it's a bustling place, it's quite poverty-stricken, this is the fifth poorest country in the world, Neal. But, you know, basically, I think the film was very accurate. Of course, they filmed those scenes, interestingly, in China, most of them, as opposed to Afghanistan because, you know, Afghanistan is really not set up to handle a major movie. And just took, you know, their electricity is only on four or five hours in Kabul a day, if you're lucky. So, it's not the sort of place you can make a major motion picture, plus, of course, a rather - these other issues of ethnic tensions.

CONAN: And the picture you have of Kabul, the mountain surrounding it, does - it's very individualistic, but as you look at the mountains in the movie, does that look like Afghanistan?

Mr. BERGEN: Yeah, it looks like Afghanistan.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. BERGEN: It does.

CONAN: And the picture that were shot in China looked like Afghanistan?

Mr. BERGEN: Yeah, they did a great job of recreating it.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get Chris(ph) on the line. Chris from Syracuse, New York.

CHRIS (Caller): Hello, Neal. I love the show.

CONAN: Thank you.

CHRIS: And unfortunately, I have not seen "The Kite Runner" yet. A lot of my buddies were reading it while I was over in Afghanistan.

CONAN: Really?

CHRIS: Yes. I was a medic over there, did a long tour about 16 months. And for the tribal areas, there is good and thing - good and bad things to say about it. But when you really get to know the Pashtun people, I had nothing but good things to say for the people.

CONAN: Did you read the novel?

CHRIS: No, I didn't. I was about three people down on the list because it was coming around.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHRIS: So I just missed it on my way out.

CONAN: But I will bet - I bet you were glad to get home where you could go to any bookstore and buy it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHRIS: Absolutely. It is on my wish list hint to my mom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay. Chris, thanks very much for the call and glad you made it back in one piece.

CHRIS: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And I guess that's another aspect of the people who've been there since reading this novel and thinking back on 30 years of history, a history of - a terrible history of a country which the United States had an important hand in. I guess "Charlie Wilson's War" is going to another aspect of that same history told from another capital, of course, Washington D.C.

Mr. BERGEN: Indeed, which is coming out December 20th, I believe.

CONAN: Yeah, a story about a U.S. congressman who - a playboy, basically, who for some reason gets interested, fascinated, and absorbed by the conflict in Afghanistan and lands his considerable talent to funding the conflict against the Soviet Union, which had some other consequences.

Later, you can read about those and some of Peter Bergen's books about Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida. Peter Bergen, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. BERGEN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: We're - been talking about the movie version of "The Kite Runner," which is now in theaters around the country.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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