The low-budget, indie drama “Black Kite” charts five decades of political turmoil in Afghanistan through the eyes of a hapless kite maker, the middle generation of a sadly doomed dynasty. More well-intentioned than accomplished, this second feature from Kabul-born, Canadian helmer Tarique Qayumi suffers in comparison to “The Kite Runner,” Marc Foster’s richly detailed screen translation of Khaled Hosseini’s beloved bestseller. But despite its shortcomings of script and performance, the film has a certain middlebrow festival appeal, considering its exotic locations and winsome child players. Certainly, multihyphenate Qayumi deserves credit for his deft use of archival footage and animation, which provide useful context and historical background.
The heavy-handed opening moments are a bit of a turn-off, and work against audience identification, as we see that things won’t end well for the film’s protagonist, Arian (sober Haji Gul, who can’t make his ingenuous character credible). Bloody and bowed, he is sentenced to death by a Taliban leader for the crime of kite flying. Just how he arrives at this sorry state is revealed as he shares his life story with a brutish cellmate (Sin Mim Alavi), while lying in a dirty prison awaiting execution.
As Arian speaks, Qayumi uses choice archival footage to show the forward-looking Afghanistan of the protagonist’s 1960s youth; it’s the the era of the country’s last king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, who made education compulsory for children. We see clips of unveiled, high-heeled, mini-skirted women out and about town and working at important jobs, traditional musicians playing concerts, and even a high-end fashion show — scenes likely to astonish those whose only image of the beleaguered country is the death and destruction wrought by the Taliban.
Flashbacks proper start with the youthful Arian (twinkle-eyed tyke Hamid Noorzay) observing his father (Hadi Delsoz), an illiterate Kabuli kite maker, and absorbing the art and craft behind what was arguably Afghanistan’s favorite sport. Simple 2D animation by Kunal Sen aims to capture the freedom and excitement the lad feels as his father’s colorful creations soar and dip in the sky, dancing on the wind.
Although Arian looks like a bright boy, Qayumi makes him a hopeless dreamer, unable to focus on his teacher or his lessons, since his attention remains riveted to the kites in the sky. Here, the dialogue proves a bit too on-the-nose as the boy is told, “These kites will be the ruin of you”; and that basically is the screenplay in a nutshell. If only Arian’s interest in kite flying were portrayed as something more than a simple fatal obsession he would be more interesting and sympathetic. But instead he’s a one-note character.
As an adolescent (played by Masoud Fanayee), Arian, despite years of schooling, fails to earn a diploma, although his proud father believes that he graduated. His full entry into the family business coincides with the Soviet invasion, when his father, too, falls victim to an unwillingness to give up his kite though the situation warrants it. Years pass, and although Arian seems to do nothing but fly his colorful paper creations, his women folk still manage to marry him to the beautiful Jameela (Leena Alam).
As the front line of the war enters Kabul, and the Taliban terrorizes the locals (shown in shocking newsreel clips) Arian’s mother and sister prove imminently sensible and flee to Pakistan, leaving the family’s attic abode to Arian, Jameela and their newborn, Seema. Eventually, perhaps predictably, more tragedy strikes, leaving Seema (the adorably demanding Zahra Nasim) to become drawn to the family obsession.
On the plus side, Qayumi’s guerilla-style shooting on actual Kabul locations lends visual élan and authenticity to the story. Likewise, some of the production designs of his multi hyphenate partner, Tajana Prka, prove memorable: in particular, the illegal stash of colorful kites hanging from floor to ceiling in Arian’s home. Less commendable, however, is the overly insistent, sacharine score by Benedict Taylor and Naren Chandavarkar.