Although it’s a touch too laid back to adequately hammer home the fatalist stakes at the centre of its story, the real life inspired drama Black Kite remains a poignant, personal, and passionate look at one man living in Afghanistan from the 1960s to the height of the Taliban’s power. Afghan-Canadian filmmaker Tarique Qayumi (who came to Canada as a refugee in 1983 and returned to work in his homeland from 2011 to 2015) made his film in the war torn country across three weeks and largely in secret due to the film’s seemingly innocuous, but highly contentious subject matter, and his ability to pull it off such a feat in the first place is unquestionably commendable. One only wishes that the film itself could match the immediacy of how it was made or the tragic nature of the story it’s trying to convey with a bit more oomph.
Arian (Haji Gul) has been captured by The Taliban and immediately sentenced to hang at an impromptu Sharia trial in front of his distraught young daughter (Zohra Nasim). He’s placed into a jail cell next to an accused murderer (Sin Mim Alavi) to await his fate the following morning. In exchange for a drink of water from his tough talking cell mate’s ewer, Arian agrees to relay the story of how he ended up with a death sentence. Arian’s story stretches back to the 1960s, where as a young boy (played by Hamid Noorzay) he looked up to his kite flying father. As a young adult (played by Masuod Fanayee) who’s more obsessed with making and flying kites than schoolwork, Arian finds his dreams of carrying on the family business dashed by the Russian invasion and the rise of the Mujahideen, whom he’s forced into helping with his magnificent flying objects. Shortly after meeting his wife (Leena Alam) and the birth of his daughter, the country falls under Taliban control and kite flying is one of the many things that become outlawed. When his pre-teen daughter starts showing an interest in the old family business, Arian risks his life to show her, under the cover of the new moon’s darkness, the wonders of kite flying.
Black Kite (so named after one of the colours Arian is asked to fly by his Mujahideen handler) is one of those stories about how a person’s entire life can build to a singular defining moment. Writer-director Qayumi wants to detail Arian’s life as richly as possible, but Black Kite might prove to be more ambitious than the filmmaker’s low budget and limited amount of shooting time can handle. There’s plenty of explanation as to how Arian got to the point he’s at, but very little about how important of a pastime kite flying used to be in the country, so the cultural context is already somewhat lacking.
Similarly, by using a framing device in which someone recounts their life story, there’s very little mystery as to what could have landed Arian in prison. There’s not much to reveal to the audience, with Alavi’s prisoner coming across as the only character left totally in the dark as to what’s been happening. That predictability means that Qayumi’s 82 minute film is comprised of approximately 60 minutes of set-up for a payoff that’s already established. There’s no rush or sense of urgency to how Qayumi unfolds this man’s life story, which is probably a reflection of how Arian has accepted his dire fate, but it also makes things seem less immediate, and therefore less powerful.
The details of Arian’s life are restrained and fascinating, but they would be better suited to a longer, more encompassing epic where the other people involved with the story are given more to do. Every era of Arian’s life has plenty of shifting dramatic and emotional weight, but the story feels pulled along by conveniences and coincidences that only exist to keep things moving along instead of more organic plot progressions. It also doesn’t help that Qayumi can’t properly transition between eras because the three actors portraying Arian during each stage of his life don’t look particularly similar, although all three – especially Gul – are quite exceptional.
Qayumi makes up for some of the material’s shortcomings by making the film as polished and visually captivating as he possibly can. Nicely animated asides bring Arian’s dreams and inner thoughts to vibrant life. The musical score from Naren Chandavarkar and Benedict Taylor lends the film the epic scope, suspense, and soaring background that the story sometimes lacks. And Quyumi has a real flair for creating subtle moments of tenderness and kindness that leave the biggest impressions. A scene where Arian sits with his pregnant wife listening to bombs and machine guns carrying on outside and a gorgeous, sundrenched shot of the protagonist’s kite lined ceiling are true standouts. They make an impression without saying much of anything at all.
What Black Kite lacks in polish and storytelling chops it more than makes up for in empathy. It’s impossible not to feel for Arian when his transgressions are so slight, misunderstood, and just. Across the course of the film, it’s clear that this man’s life has been one of great pain, but that he has found joy in the darkest of places, even as he approaches the gallows. Sometimes a film doesn’t need much more than that to inspire. Although Qayumi’s simplistic approach might fall short in terms of immediacy, the necessarily stripped down approach also gives the film its big beating heart. And when trying to convey a story about someone persecuted for doing what they love, it’s heart that matters most.
Black Kite opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday, June 1, 2018. Tarique Qayumi will be on hand to present the film for the 6:30 pm show on June 1 and the 3:30 pm show on June 2.
Check out the trailer for Black Kite: