Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Blessed are the Meek -- "The Kite Runner"

The Kite Runner is a pious film about an Afghan boy who escapes the Russian invasion and emigrates to America with his father. He returns to the country later to save his nephew from the Taliban and bring him back to America.

That the film is a sneaky justification of American values and interventionism, a straightforward response to the film, is probably too obvious. It's maybe obvious enough that it wouldn't slip under a critical movie-goer's interpretive radar. With the subject matter being "Afghanistan" how can the film not have obvious political considerations? So, I would like to critique the film in a way that most would not have considered. My interpretation is from the position that it is a justification of Christian virtues above anything else.

The most prominent theme is the master/slave relationship between Amir, the Afghan boy, and Hassan, his old servant. The film's tagline is "There is a way to be good again," which is indicative of the American obsession with its own appearance in the eyes of global civil society after so many mistakes. But in fact the way one becomes good again, the film shows, is to become like the old servant. Goodness is service; goodness is slavishness. It is not necessarily to intervene in another country's affairs.

Like Christ, Hassan's highest moral imperative is "to serve". A true disciple, as it says in Matthew 19, sells all of his possessions and becomes a follower and a servant. And there is one scene in particular that I would like to dissect.

The beginning of the film's tension starts during a scene where Hassan and Amir had won a kite-running contest, and Hassan -- in his unswerving devotion to Amir -- runs down the street to catch the kite that they had won in the contest. But Hassan is trapped in an alleyway and raped by three older Pushtan boys who see meekness in Hassan. The Pushtan boys say Hassan is simply one of Amir's dogs. And Amir, who watches the entire rape take place, does not stand up for his servant. Even though Amir already knows what happened, he covers up and asks "What happened?" to Hassan. Hassan also covers up and says nothing happened. At this point, the exposure of Amir's betrayal and Hassan's self-denial, we feel pity for Hassan and these moral sacrifices.

Later, Amir's anger towards his own weakness of will is displaced onto Hassan. In one scene, they are reading moral stories together, and Amir begins to throw pomegranates at Hassan, reddening his shirt. He screams "Why won't you hit me back?!" But Hassan is the ultimate embodiment of Christian-Abrahamic moral values. He 'turns the other cheek' as picks up a pomegranate and smashes it against his own head. Amir is paralyzed.

The problem is that Hassan is supposed to be morally superior to Amir, and Amir does not have strength in his will to overcome morality. Amir writes moral stories, and Hassan critiques them, and then Hassan critiques Amir himself. Hassan's critique of Amir's moral values seems to circumscribe any criteria that Amir gives. "Morality" is the only scheme of interpretation by which Hassan can endure himself. Amir needs some way to be better than Hassan, but morality is the overarching interpretive code, and Amir can't find a better one, so eventually he accepts the code and becomes a Christ-like servant too.

But the devotion to moral values like charity, piety, meekness and subservience that have formed Hassan's identity has made him into a Christ-like character who will eventually be publicly sacrificed in front of Amir's house. Hassan will be rejected by his own people. Amir's father, who is moral pharisee (radically reinterpreting "theft" as the only sin, and says that one has a "right to truth"), rejects Hassan because he is his own illegitimate child. The Pushtans reject him because he is a prophet of docile moral values. Amir rejects him because, like Judas Iscariot, he must betray his disguised master by turning him in to the authorities. (He cannot serve two masters.)

In fact Amir at one point frames Hassan and accuses him of being a thief in order to have Hassan seized by the pharisees. Hassan, while innocent, feigns guilt so that he can please Amir and be guilty. Yet when Hassan confesses, this only makes Amir more rambunctious. When Amir's father becomes like Pontius Pilate and pronounces Hassan innocent, Hassan and his father insist that they leave anyway. Hassan walks away like the quiet Christ, accepting false accusations while showing moral restraint and humility. Amir's father does not understand what has happened and he throws his hands up in the air as if to say "What is truth?"

Throughout the entire story, the audience simply accepts that meekness is a virtue, but what for? Meekness was never a classical virtue for the Greeks, the Romans, or the Persians. It was invented by Jewish slaves to justify their morality in imperial societies, as when they were captives in Babylon and subjects under Rome. It's a coping mechanism, yet it has subverted all other values and is accepted as universal. We are all Christianized. And now Hollywood has Christianized Islamic societies, subsuming other cultures and impressing on them their own values. We can turn the film's tagline into "How to be Christ-like again" and it would make just as much sense. Being an unquestioning servant with unconditional love for master and who is therefore brutalized is one of the highest moral qualities one can achieve, we are told, deserving reverence and pity.

"Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth."

This is one of the beatitudes found in the synoptic Gospels. It is interesting that it says the earth is the inheritable reward for meekness. When Jewish captives escaped from Egypt, they "inherited" the land of Israel, which means they had to kill everyone off who lived there before them. Yet slaves will never inherit anything except the earth they till for their masters, so long as they remain slaves. What this film shows us is how to become proper slaves. It is a projection of slave morality, the kind of morality that instructs us to become obedient, unquestioning, rule-abiding servants who sacrifice their will to the authority of their masters. Far from having a right to truth, as Amir's father says, there are truths that are fit only for slaves and truths fit only for stronger wills.

The Christian story is an odd mixture of pity and many other sentiments. The audience responds to Hassan's meekness just as they respond to Christ's meekness. Meekness is being quiet, gentle, and always ready to do what someone else wants without expressing one's own opinion. It is one of the seven virtues of Christianity. It is the embodiment of slave morality. Yet the value of those values are not called into question. They are simply part of our cultural interpretive code.


HarryTuttle said...

I didn't see this film, but this "forced" christianized interpretation is at least thought provoking. Did you watch any afghan-made movies?

Acumensch said...

I pretty sure Osama (2003) counts as Afghan-made since it was directed by Siddiq Barmak and filmed in Kabul, so that's the only Afghan film I've seen. There aren't too many Afghan-made films though.