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Hollywood Copes with Cross-Cultural Tensions in 'The Kite Runner'


Concerns over the safety of two Afghan child actors have delayed release of the upcoming film The Kite Runner, a story set in a turbulent Afghanistan from the 1970s to 2001. Mike O'Sullivan reports on the controversy, and on the challenges studios face as Hollywood films become more international.

Two children with no acting experience were among the local Afghans to appear in the film, based on a best-selling 2003 novel by Khaled Hosseini. The story concerns an Afghan-American who returns to Afghanistan under fundamentalist Taleban rule.

The story takes its name from traditional kite-flying tournaments that the Afghan-American enjoyed as a boy, which were later banned by the Taleban.

The real-life drama centers on Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada and Zekeria Ebrahimi, two 12-year-old boys recruited to star in the film. Ahmad plays a youngster from the Hazara group who is raped by a thug from the dominant Pashtun tribe while the other boy looks on.

Filmmakers simulated the attack, but the boys and their families have told the media such attacks are considered shameful and they are in danger because of it.

There is also a dispute between the families and the studio over how much the actors were told about the story line. Paramount Vantage, the film's distributor, says it is delaying the release by six weeks to relocate the boys during the film's opening.

Political scientist Seth Jones is an analyst for the Rand Corporation, a private policy institute and teaches at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. Jones says radical Islamic groups have extended their reach to Afghanistan and other areas, and the studio is wise to be careful.

He says people in urban areas are enjoying a flourishing of the arts, but that rural people are conservative, especially in the south and east of the country, and many support strict Islamic law, or Sharia.

"And so you do see this tension in the country between a freedom of expression and art, paintings, poetry, as well as this sort of really conservative radical interpretation of Islam and the establishment of Sharia [Islamic law] that you get with the Taleban and other groups," he said.

Movie producer Jonathan Taplin has worked on films including Mean Streets and The Last Waltz with director Martin Scorsese, and the comedy-thriller To Die For with Gus Van Sant. Taplin now teaches at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.

He says films today are international, shot on locations around the world with actors from many countries, and studios are becoming alert to religious and cultural differences.

"Today, with 60 percent of their revenues coming from outside of the United States, they have to be much more sensitive to this," he explained.

He says Paramount was right to take precautions on behalf of the young actors. He says the case was unusual, involving the welfare of children, but he says conflicts are inevitable as filmmakers push the boundaries of geography and culture.

"Because filmmakers and artists are citizens of the world today - they're not just sitting in their little garret in New York or Los Angeles - they are traveling," he added. "They are out there. They are experiencing this. And so in that sense, it's a good thing."

Political scientist Seth Jones says the interplay of cultures also creates tensions. He points to the recent kidnapping of foreigners in Afghanistan, and says anti-Western attitudes are strong in parts of the country.

"We've had the kidnapping of Westerners and support for the kidnapping of Westerners, because of a very serious perception among the local population of what you might call a clash of civilizations," he noted.

Jones does not want to see films censored, but says filmmakers could cooperate with local religious and political leaders.

"[The can] work on what what's often called information operations, generally working a sort of media public relations strategy to, limit negative reactions," he explained. "But it's a very difficult line, because there are a lot of gray areas. And you can't legislate this."

The studio says it is working with consultants to ensure the safety of the two boys, and of a third boy who also appeared in the film.

The Kite Runner is now scheduled for release December 14.

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