Kabuli Kid (Barmak Akram, 2008): France/Afghanistan

Reviewed by Linda Schad. Viewed at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

In Barmak Akram’s feature debut,  Kabuli Kid , we first meet the main protagonist, a Kabul taxi driver, Khaled (Hadji Gul), happily chatting away with a passenger about how life has changed for the better since the repressive Taliban regime lost its control over his beloved country. This initial introduction sets up our hero as a modern-thinking, liberated man, interested in democratic ideals–not a religious zealot with rigid fundamentalist thinking and with terrorist connections. Given this knowledge, we can now identify with this character, lean back, relax and enjoy the ride.

Khaled picks up a woman, her face and body hidden beneath a long blue burqa. Cradled in her arms is a tightly swaddled baby boy. After hearing the price of the fare, she offers to pay only what she can afford for the ride. A kind and ethical man, Khaled accepts the reduced amount without complaint.

At her destination, the woman gets out of the cab, and is quickly replaced by yet another passenger. Khaled’s new fare suddenly discovers the baby left on the back seat, initially overlooked in his rush to enter the cab. Khaled quickly returns to where the veiled woman had gotten out, but she is gone, and is nowhere to be found. How could Khaled possibly identify her? The only identifying mark he had noticed was a tiny mole on her left ankle. Suddenly, Khaled’s life is turned upside down, and he spends the next thirty-six hours attempting to locate the infant’s missing mother.

Through the use of natural lighting, hand-held camera, and telephoto lenses, the film feels more like a real-life documentary than a fictional drama. As Khaled endeavors to find a safe place to leave the child, he introduces us to a city that few Americans have ever seen, except perhaps through the aid of TV newsreels or recent war-related documentaries.

Moreover, this film functions as a quiet but profound commentary upon the daily existence of women within a culture that seem so remote to our ideals. Even without the Taliban, a woman’s worth is solely measured in her value as someone else’s possession, mainly as wife, worker and bearer of sons.

The film’s main female character (the mother who abandons her baby boy) exists only as a faceless figure. Her traditional veiled burqa restricting not only her physical movements, but is also a constant symbol of male hegemony. Even Khaled’s wife (Helena Alam) remains nameless, and worries he may leave her or take a second wife because she has not given him a son.

Having fathered not one but two daughters, Khaled’s lack of a male heir is almost palpable. But now, providence seems to have delivered to him a male child. How could he part with such a precious, long-prayed-for gift from Allah?

Nevertheless, as an honorable man, Khaled finally heads off to the local radio station, where, with some financial assistance from a couple of French tourists, Marie (Amelie Glenn) and Mathieu (Valery Schatz), he places an ad over the air to encourage the missing mother to come in and claim both the abandoned baby and a large reward–no questions asked.

The next morning, not one but five blue-veiled women arrive at the radio station, claiming to be the baby’s mother. At this point in the film, I am reminded of King Solomon, who threatens to cleave a baby into equal parts in order to discover the true identity of the infant’s mother.

The way in which this story resolves itself is unusual to our conditioned American expectations, but the journey to the film’s conclusion is a sheer delight. Unfortunately, most of us are born and bred to expect Hollywood “happy endings,” and not accustomed to this type of open-ended tale. We walk out of the theater asking ourselves: “What would make a woman abandon her infant–especially in such a culture, where, as in China, extremely high value is placed on infant boys?” But, we are never told. It is left up to us, the audience, to decide the answer to this unspoken question. However, does it really matter what the answer could be?

The fact that Kabuli Kid leaves many questions unanswered is important. As in real life, nothing is ever neatly tied up with a bow. It is fitting that this film should continue to linger in the mind, long after the lights come up and the curtain falls, begging for careful consideration and ethical resolutions to very difficult issues.

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