Black Kite depicts the life of Arian, a simple, everyday man who loves to make and fly kites. In doing so, it also reflects on the history of Afghanistan over the second half of the twentieth century. The film employs a framing device, with Arian recounting the story of his life through flashbacks to another man sharing his prison cell, while awaiting his death sentence at the hands of the Taliban. His crime? Flying his beloved kites, which the Taliban banned during their rule, along with an assortment of other cultural activities they deemed in violation of their strict interpretation of Sharia law. Black Kite attempts to make sense of the events that led to this particular moment of absurdity, and bears witness to a simple, but powerful, act of defiance.
The film is not, however, as powerful or impactful as the subject matter would suggest. It falters heavily as a dramatic narrative. The framing device provides an easy tool for establishing a broader historical context but is also a crutch. Arian’s fellow prisoner doesn’t work as a character or an audience surrogate. He’s too thinly sketched, his behavior inconsistent from scene to scene and his final gestures arbitrary and unearned. Worse, many of the film’s dramatic beats miss their mark, for various reasons. Some scenes are too heavily telegraphed, feeling mechanical in construction, undercutting drama and emotion. One scene, in which a young Arian is trying to confess to his father that he lied about his grades, seems solid enough conceptually (a quiet moment suddenly interrupted by violence, to depict how quickly our lives can turn upside down), but is undone by its shoddy execution. The varying quality of the source footage used to make up the scene, and the staging of the action, results in jarring and awkward editing choices and overall scene construction.
The film struggles to develop a coherent emotional thread, but it has plenty of merits in other aspects. Much of the success of Black Kite owes to its resourcefulness. Shot with a skeleton crew and mostly unprofessional actors, amidst turmoil during a period after Ashraf Ghani’s election, the film’s guerrilla aesthetics are as admirable as they are rough and amateur. Whatever could not be shot or completed on the streets of Kabul were recreated through other means. The film uses found footage and animation at key moments, mostly for flashbacks and dream sequences. The animation scenes are a welcome surprise, rendering dreams and imaginative flights of fancy with a colorful, whimsical contrast to the often somber domestic drama unfolding in front of director Tarique Qayumi’s camera. These scenes were created by Vancouver-based Kunal Sen, who also worked as an animator on Ann Marie Fleming’s wonderful 2016 feature, Window Horses. The found footage, however, is what elevates Black Kite to its greatest heights.
As luck would have it, Qayumi was able to gain access to recently unearthed footage from an Afghan film archive, hastily hidden away behind a false wall to prevent discovery and destruction at the hands of the Taliban. This footage provides new media perspectives on key moments in the political history of Afghanistan, in addition to giving the film another fascinating stylistic device. Flashbacks and memories take the form of never-before-seen raw documentary footage, lending a unique urgency to the narrative. The framing device of Arian recounting the story of his life takes on a new layer of meaning, no longer just the story of a man conflated with the story of a nation, but Arian’s memories, personal and political, now conflated with real and valuable media documents. Black Kite becomes a metatextual odyssey, a narrative recounting of history (delivered from Arian to his fellow inmate) and a literal unearthing of Afghanistan’s recorded memories (delivered from Qayumi to his film’s audience).
In the face of a fundamentalist power that attempts to dominate through erasure, daring to remember is an act of rebellion.
The absurdity of fundamentalism is most successfully highlighted in the contrast between the Taliban with Arian’s daughter, Sareem. It is Sareem who pushes her father into danger, her fascination and obsession with kite-flying providing the impetus for Arian’s defiance. The film’s opening scene shows Arian kneeling on the ground, bloodied and beaten, receiving sentencing for his crimes. Sareem is off to the side, crying, with a Taliban soldier gripping her by the shoulders, holding her firmly in place. The non-linear organization of story events will cast a shadow over the simple joys she experiences later in the film’s flashbacks, a grim specter hovering over her innocence. She cannot understand the ramifications of her repeated requests, the scope of the danger she is inviting into her home. The Taliban soldier who detains her is the manifestation of that grim specter, a terrible force that will rip her from her family, destroy her innocence, and try to smother any joy she might find in the world. All because she wants to fly a kite. Such is the decree: a little girl gazes upon the world around her with curiosity and wonder, and a man says, “No.”
Black Kite succeeds in fits and starts. Not every creative choice works, and sometimes whole scenes simply flatline. Sometimes the film buckles under its limited resources, but sometimes it soars. And even as the narrative struggles to cohere with dramatic force, individual moments strike with unexpected power. The film has a gentle yet rebellious spirit, and that spirit takes it far. Qayumi’s resourcefulness also shows imagination and promise. With a guerrilla crew on the streets of Kabul, the serendipitous discovery of archive documentary footage, and the use of Sen’s animation, he explores the boundless possibilities of the medium to share his story by any means necessary, and it’s a story worth sharing. Black Kite offers a rarely seen perspective in Western media, from a wildly misunderstood part of the world. This is the very spirit of independent cinema.