Silk Road Detours

From Afghanistan's blasted terrain (The Kite Runner) to the tea fields of China (All in This Tea) at the movies — two trips well worth taking.

The Kite Runner is not particularly experimental, and it fails to break any new ground stylistically. It doesn’t have Hollywood stars or celebrity sizzle. It takes place mostly in Afghanistan, a country many Americans feel ashamed about politically, because it’s been labeled Terror Central by our government and bombed accordingly. Most of the films we’ve seen about Afghanistan stress the misery and intolerance it has inherited. The film is also notorious for a scene depicting a sexual assault against a young boy — a touchy enough subject even in narrative fiction, made worse by inflamed national and religious feelings. So The Kite Runner arrives with a list of putative dis-recommendations, and yet it’s one of the best movies of 2007.

That’s because, against all odds, it’s a remarkable story with tremendous human interest, about people we think we’ve figured out, but about whom we actually know next to nothing. Through the mediation of screenwriter David Benioff (Troy) and director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Stay), Khaled Hosseini’s novel transcends the political and economic imperatives, strips away the preconceptions, and focuses on the relationship of two people — a rich boy and a poor boy — who happen to have grown up in Kabul in the 1970s.

Amir (played by Zekiria Ebrahimi) is the son of a wealthy man (Homayoun Ershadi), but Baba the father has doubts about Amir, particularly the boy’s perceived weakness of spirit. The one who truly believes in Amir and his desire to be a writer is a kind family friend, Rahim Khan (Shaun Toub). There’s no weakness in Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada), the son of a servant in Amir’s family and thus the rich kid’s designated playmate. Even as a ten-year-old, Hassan looks rough and ready compared to the slightly shy Amir. Together they explore Kabul and its surroundings in that country’s Good Old Days before the Russians came — throwing rocks, facing up to bullies, and especially flying kites, their favorite pastime. For Hassan’s birthday, Baba gives him a special fighting kite, and the two boys compete as a team in the annual kite derby, the film’s CGI visual centerpiece and its emotional touchstone.

Afghanistan is fiercely tribal, something we see when a group of Pashtun bullies picks on Hassan because he’s Hazara, and defers slightly to the upper-class Amir. It’s these bullies, led by a resentful red-haired boy named Assef, who gang-rape Hassan one day, shattering Amir’s self-worth in the process because he ran away and didn’t help his friend. Amir never mentions the incident to his father, and in fact to cover it up commits an almost unpardonable act of betrayal against Hassan, the atonement for which takes up half the movie’s running time — the time, as it were, of the brutal Russians (themselves rapists) and the even more barbaric Taliban.

Amir and Baba leave Afghanistan ahead of the Soviet invasion and eventually land here in Fremont, where Amir, now a young man (Khalid Abdalla), meets and marries Soraya (Atossa Leoni), daughter of an old, hard-line Afghan general in exile. In the East Bay, it’s easy for immigrants to let memories of the old country slip away. But Amir never forsakes his ambition to become a writer, nor forgets the shame of his sin against his boyhood friend. Thirst for redemption leads Amir into the most dangerous adventure of his life.

This seemingly simple story develops complexity as it unfolds, bolstered by superlative performances by all the principal actors. Anglo-Egyptian Khalid Abdalla, who plays the grown-up Amir, portrayed a terrorist in United 93. Iranian actor Homayoun Ershadi (Baba) was in Abbas Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry. Anglo-Iranian Shaun Toub, now a Los Angeles resident, provides the film’s moral anchor as the sagacious Rahim Khan. As the pederast Talib bully Assef, actor Abdul Salam Yusoufzai is appropriately hissable. But the true stars of The Kite Runner are Zekiria Ebrahimi and Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada as young Amir and Hassan. Their performances, of a naturalistic intensity to match anything in the great Iranian films of Kiarostami or Jafar Panahi, catapult The Kite Runner and director Forster into dramatic heights that also happen to be politically meaningful as well — a rarefied atmosphere for a rare film.

It’s a long way emotionally from Taliban-era Kabul to the tea fields of Southern China, but from Kashgar, Tashgarkan, and the Pamir Mountain region of Western China (the locations where The Kite Runner was shot, to stand in for Afghanistan) to China’s Fujian, Guangdong, Anxi, and Zhejiang provinces — the settings of Les Blank and Gina Leibrecht’s joyous documentary All in This Tea — is not far as the crane flies. It’s worth the trip and then some.

Blank, the legendary cameraman who shot the New Orleans cemetery sequence in Easy Rider and went on to become perhaps this country’s preeminent cultural documentarian with such films as Burden of Dreams and Gap-Toothed Women, operates his Flower Films out of a space behind Down Home Music on San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito. He’s an East Bay treasure in his own right, and his profile of fellow Bay Area resident and tea aficionado David Lee Hoffman will send every single viewer out the door toward the nearest teahouse with its infectious enthusiasm for the good life.

Marin County world traveler and former hippie Hoffman started Silk Road Tea Company in Lagunitas to bring handcrafted fine teas to Americans (he has since sold the company). The doc follows him as he tramps through muddy villages and mountain trails seeking out individual Chinese farmers who grow the puerh (aged teas), green tea, and oolong to die for — organic teas, nurtured by worms and untainted by China’s toxic chemicals and penchant for mass production.

Since this is a Les Blank film, co-directed with San Francisco’s Gina Leibrecht, there’s also plenty of food: hand-pulled noodles, red chili sauce, etc., to go with the brews. Look for filmmaker Werner Herzog, shown sniffing tea leaves with Hoffman in the latter’s home. And thank Hoffman for helping tea challenge coffee as America’s hot drink of choice. More than a billion Chinese can’t be wrong. 

All in This Tea screens one night only for two performances at the Cerrito Speakeasy Theater in El Cerrito. Filmmaker Blank will make a personal appearance.

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