Language and Land in “The Kite Runner”

January 2, 2008

The Kite Runner is a good movie that in another year would be almost assured of a Best Picture nomination. It was gift-wrapped for the academy: a coming-of-age story, told against the background of global upheaval, with its politics and heart in the right place–and based on a best-selling novel, no less. But this is a different year, when things are more unsettled and our movies more unsettling. This year, a movie filled with so much sentiment seems out of place. If you’re looking for a movie to see with your family that isn’t exactly a family movie, The Kite Runner is a good choice; if you’re looking for a picture to make you think in a way you haven’t before, The Kite Runner is not that film.

The most important aesthetic decision made in The Kite Runner is the choice to film the movie in Dari. (If the use of Dari seems self-evident, just think of all the American movies made over the years that take place in English no matter where and when they take place.) This must have been incredibly challenging for the film’s German/Swiss director, Marc Foster, a man who has made his living making English language pictures (Monsters’ Ball, Finding Neverland). Clearly his multilingualism makes him more suited for the task than most directors working in Hollywood, but the task is no less daunting. Can we really expect a director to be able to gauge and manage performances given in a language he doesn’t know? Even though most viewers are reading the subtitles, we still depend on the timbre of the voices to guide or appreciation of the emotion and resonance. The sounds still matter, and little quirks of language like stresses are important for meaning. All of these things are lost to the director. We can only assume that something is lost in this equation, but the question is: how much? and was it worth it?

Certainly something is gained by using Dari. There’s an added sense of realism to the film, and the language is one more element to draw us into the movie’s world. In this case, it’s important for the filmmakers that we love pre-Soviet Afghanistan as much as the characters themselves. The decline-redemption narrative doesn’t work without it. Later, the language use helps fix us in the Genre of immigrant literature, with its frequent emphasis on diglossia (cf. Henry Roth’s excellent Call it Sleep). Characters switch back and forth between English and Dari, and language choice tells us something about the characters. Speaking Dari in America adds to our understanding of the characters’ sense of exile (or lack thereof).

But the language I’m most interested in occurs at the level of dialogue. What should be told in dialogue was a major concern of modernism. One of its major questions was, how much should be explicit and how much left open to interpretation. In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway questions Gertrude Stein about word choice, arguing for the “true words” even if they make the story “inaccrochable” (unprintable; taken from painting and the ability to hang a painting on a wall), and make the story harder to understand in the long run.

“But what if it is not dirty but it is only that you are trying to use words that people would actually use? That are the only words that can make the story come true and that you must use them? You have to use them.

In some ways, this problem is most acute in political movies, where the “aboutness” is more obvious and pressing. In Picture Theory, W.J.T. Mitchell says, “I am old enough to remember a time when going to the movies meant going to see newsreels too…I’ve never been able to get over the idea that the news is just another kind of movie, and vice-versa. So the question is, when a movie has such an overt, journalistic purpose, is it ok to sacrifice dialogue, to make speeches?

The answer is probably, yes and no. It doesn’t work in Charlie Wilson’s War because the tone of the movie prior to the end was so satiric, and the satire already got the point across. But somehow it works in The Kite Runner. It’s a movie where characters are sentimental about everything. There’s no room here for political nuance: Soviets-Taliban-racism bad, love of your brother good. It ends before the time of nuance begins, with the Taliban still in power. It’s a type of movie where there’s no need to leave anything unsaid, where what matters is how you say it. And that’s why it feels anachronistic even as a war still rages in Afghanistan.

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