Films that deal with rape, especially male-child rape, make me feel panic. After watching Mysterious Skin(2004), I was left with an awful feeling and insomnia for a few days. After that film, all I could think about was Samuel Delany’s novel, Hogg, and that made me feel even worse. I emailed a former Professor from my alma mater about it and he suggested I read Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others. I did, but it didn’t help erase the images that were in my mind. That was part of the problem: that the images were there, that someone had helped create those images so they would form in my mind, and that ultimately, male-child rape had been commodified for my “innocent” voyeuristic displeasure. Well, not quite innocent because at least with Hogg and The Kite Runner, I knew there would be child rape. And I watched/read anyway. (FYI: I haven’t read all of Hogg). But, that was part of the shock of Mysterious Skin–I had no idea what I was getting myself into and it froze my brain in a particular mode of vulnerability, desperation, and panic, especially with regards to the pain of others. What I learned from watching Mysterious Skin was something particular about the culture of gay sex presented in the film; it reinforced that I do not like seeing others suffer;and it pissed me off that, in general, such suffering was ultimately commodified.
So, what did I learn from The Kite Runner? That issues in the present, if they are not addressed in the present, only worsen and repeat. In other words, why put off to tomorrow what you can do today?
I think we can all relate to the dilemma Amir was in when he witnessed Hassan’s rape: he didn’t know what to do, and he reacted in a way that projected his shame over his own cowardice onto Hassan. The end result was that Hassan already felt “dirty” about what had happened, and just took the injustice dealt to him by Amir when he was accused of stealing. One has to ask, however, what would have been the result if Amir had told his father of the assault? Would it have brought public shame onto the house? This reminds me of another film (I’m drawing a blank on the title but it’s contemporary Italian and deals with the results of exposing such shame on a wealthy family), in which a very elaborate scheme is concocted in order to protect one of the characters from the repercussions of her exposing that another character (a wealthy aristocrat’s son) had been raping children under his care.
Needless to say, in a more conservative culture like Afghanistan (in all eras presented in the film), I doubt it would have turned out very well for Hassan had Amir exposed the crime. But, the viewer is still left hoping that Amir will tell Hassan he knows and that he is sorry, or that he would have had the courage to stop the crime from happening at all. But that never comes, and it is exactly that ethical malfeasance that turns into the guilt that can be felt by the viewer. And it is exactly that ethical malfeasance that allows for the same atrocity to be perpetuated on Hassan’s own son, Sohrab. It was gut-wrenching to learn that Sohrab was in the same situation as his father had been, by the same person–the ultimate irony–and while Amir did exact him from the situation, the question still remains as to whether he has atoned for the original sin?
The problem, I suppose, is with at least a few things: reciprocation in friendship, courage, guilt, and ethics/compassion. Amir lacked courage and he knew it, but it doesn’t seem like his father truly instilled any courage in him, only scolded him for being a disgrace. Ethics and compassion are something you learn, and Baba seemed very selfish and self-centered with whatever politics he was involved in, so clearly he didn’t instill in Amir how to “do the right thing.” This then affects the reciprocation in friendship–Hassan was clearly the better friend, and Amir showed emotional immaturity in the face of Hassan’s clear maturity. Ironically, Amir knew right from wrong, or his guilt wouldn’t have been palpable by the viewer. But his guilt never built up enough to open up the flood gates of compassion for his friend. I say this because while Amir saved Sohrab, he did not save Hassan, nor does he ever acknowledge Hassan’s “sacrifice” for him, based purely on principle.
I can’t help but think of the Dalai Lama’s text, Ethics for the New Millennium, where he says it’s not so much that you react perfectly compassionately to every situation, but rather that you practice having a compassionate response. I suppose Amir gets better at having non-selfish responses to ethical dilemmas by the end when he rescues Sohrab in Afghanistan and when he finally stands up to his father-in-law back in California. So I think the Dalai Lama would praise Amir for that.
In the film, Baba said that the ultimate crime was theft, that it was the crime that all other crimes are linked to, and yet it is the one that everyone is guilty of in this film, except Hassan (and his father): Baba, Amir, the Russians, the Taliban. What do we do about all of this theft of innocence, dignity, compassion, and culture? Because ultimately, all is stolen from everyone in this film, and ultimately the theft of the innocence of Afghanistan is the framing plot. Why do we keep stealing when we should be getting better at having compassionate responses to others? Why do we keep “raping” when our conscience tells us it’s wrong? Why do we not heal the original wounds, and keep letting new and similar wounds develop? No one with any “say” is learning anything and tomorrow we’ll be in the same predicament as today unless someone does something about it.
But as the Dalai Lama says, compassion is something that occurs on an individual basis: I must practice reacting compassionately every time . I must “nip” my own festering sores in the “bud” and not let them metastacize into other cancers. I suppose what I’ve learned from this film is that ethical dilemmas occur on the micro- and macro- levels. Much like our good friend, Shakespeare, with his play-within-a-play, the micro- in this film sheds light on the macro-. Despite that obviousness Mr. Bard, we’ll never learn, we’ll never learn!