Kabuli Kid boasts the neorealism of contemporary Iranian cinema (and its American practitioners, like Ramin Bahrani), a mode that lends its story authenticity even during excessively didactic moments. In a beaten-up Kabul where citizens bemoan the fallout of U.S. bombings with a resignation born from familiarity with conflict, taxi driver Khaled (Hadji Gul) picks up a woman wearing a blue veil, who then leaves her newborn son in his cab. Unable to find the missing mother, Khaled—who criticizes women for covering their faces, yet nonetheless treats his wife as a servant and openly wishes she had begat him sons instead of daughters—finds himself stuck with the infant. It’s a scenario Afghan director Barmak Akram mines for neither cutesy humor nor undue mawkishness, the filmmaker delivering a story not about a man redeemed by an adorable cherub, but rather, about the grim realities of life in war-ravaged Kabul. Losing work and income because of his babysitting duties, the strain compounded by his father’s complaints about his chosen job, Khaled goes to increasingly desperate and unpleasant ends to relieve himself of his newfound burden, attempting to pass off on others the problem that’s landed in his lap.
The film’s socio-political chatter frequently lacks subtlety, raising issues with a bluntness at odds with the otherwise patient, naturalistic atmosphere. If too eager to italicize its larger concerns, however, the film’s attention to detail is redeeming, frankly capturing a national mood comprised of pride, bitterness, self-interest, and defeatism. The exploitative greed of Kabul’s marketplace vendors operates hand-in-hand with the not-my-problem selfishness exhibited by social service workers, with Akram depicting his milieu and its inhabitants as struggling to face the obligations that arise from their complicated circumstances. Refusing to resort to bogus uplift, the director posits characters as recognizably flawed individuals, and his tale as one—ending with the articulation of a child’s name—whose happy ending remains in question.
Kabuli Kid premieres June 14 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2009. Click here for screening information.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.