Thursday, August 26, 2010

Film Review on Le Grand Voyage and The Kite Runner

A film review on Le Grand Voyage and The Kite Runner

This film review examines how Islam is portrayed in Le Grand Voyage and The Kite Runner, against the backdrop of increasing globalisation, namely through the process of migration and modernisation.

Le Grand Voyage is a French film chronicling the journey undertaken by a father and his son, Reda, to the Muslim holy city of Mecca. Reda has to drive his father from the south of France, where they live, to Mecca. Although most people would travel by air to go for their pilgrimage to Mecca, Reda’s father insists that they travel by car, because it will be purer and more blessed, as seen in the following exchange:

Reda: Why didn't you fly to Mecca? It's a lot simpler.
Father: When the waters of the ocean rise to the heavens, they lose their bitterness to become pure again...
Reda: What?
Father: The ocean waters evaporate as they rise to the clouds. And as they evaporate they become fresh. That's why it's better to go on your pilgrimage on foot than on horseback, better on horseback than by car, better by car than by boat, better by boat than by plane.

The story in The Kite Runner, on the other hand, unfolds through the eyes of Amir, an established writer in San Francisco, originally from Afghanistan. Through flashbacks, the story spans the lives of two boys, Amir and Hassan, who live in Afghanistan in the late 1970’s. Amir lives with his father, who is a rich merchant, and Hassan is the son of the house servant, Ali. The relationship between Amir and his father is close, and they are portrayed as the upper-class family in Afghanistan. Hassan and his father, Ali, are also close, but are portrayed as more religious than Amir and his father. In both families, the absence of their mothers only intensifies the strong father figure that is central not only in the movie, but also in Islam, where the males take on leadership roles and family responsibilities.

Both films explore the father-son relationship, amidst the political, social, or economic changes that surround them. In Le Grand Voyage, the relationship between Reda and his father is strained due to the generation gap and the modernity that envelops Reda. Being exposed to Western culture and thinking–– he is in jeans and shirt, is irreligious, and has a non-Muslim girlfriend, Reda is contrasted sharply with his father, through their dressing and their differing thoughts and ideas. The relationship is cold at first, but just like the thawing of the snow in the picturesque landscape that spans the film, their relationship improves with Reda understanding more about his father and his religious beliefs.
The clash in personalities between Reda and his father can be attributed to the concept of mass migration that results in identity creation. This is best summed up by Butt and Wohlmut (2006):

Mass migrations and the resulting diaspora are not new, but the ability to maintain a cohesive cultural identity detached from place (as fostered by the new media) is.

This explains why Reda, having raised in southern France, finds it difficult to understand his traditional father, who refuses to speak to Reda in French but Moroccan-Arabic. He later finds out that his father, in fact, can speak fluent French and realises that he converses in Arabic to Reda in order to preserve the culture. In The Kite Runner, despite living in San Francisco for many years, Amir converses with his father in Dari, the language spoken in Afghanistan. Amir shows much reverence and respect to his father, compared to Reda, who does not understand why his father has to speak in Arabic.

With regard to the issue of mass migration and its effects, as explored in both films, Appadurai (1996) highlights that ‘story of mass migrations (voluntary and forced) is hardly a new feature of human history. But when it is juxtaposed with the rapid flow of mass-mediated images, scripts, and sensation, we have a new order of instability in the production of modern subjectivities.’ From this, we see how the world is no longer confined to homogenised societies. The public spheres are no longer limited to a homogenised group of people living in one particular country, but extends to communities of people who were originally from other countries. In effect, the newly-formed communities ‘create diasporic public spheres, phenomena that confound theories that depend on the continued salience of the nation-state as the key arbiter of important social changes’ (Appadurai, 1996).

Similarly, according to Butt and Wohlmut (1996), ‘the increasing rate of disappearance of real world cultures appears to leave room for the formation of imagined cultures. As increasing globalisation puts the pressure of a certain degree of conformity on all cultures, questions of the construction of identity arise’.

Based on Butt and Wohlmut’s ‘construction of identity’, the concept of Islamic identity is also explored in both films. In Le Grand Voyage, Reda’s father is depicted as a strong, paternal figure, who is stately and religious. He is always seen performing the salah or prayer, while Reda looks on with apathy. In contrast, Amir, in The Kite Runner, is seen praying at the mosque while his father is not portrayed as the religious type. Hassan and his father, on the other hand, pray together, showing how vastly different they are from Amir and his father. This highlights how modernisation can affect one’s lifestyle––Amir’s father puts on coat and tie, drinks liquor, and has an American-made car.

From these two films, we see how secularisation affects the migrant Muslim communities in the world. With secularisation, Islamic culture and religion are affected, and the construction of identity takes on a different course as the communities, especially the younger generations, try to embrace the secular nature of the nation-state (for example, Turkey and France) and at the same time, maintain their religious obligations. Whatever form secularisation assumes, the fundamentals of Islam are clearly spelt out––especially the five pillars of practice in Islam.

Out of the five pillars of practice in Islam, both films highlight different practices in Islam, and what is prohibited in Islam. In Le Grand Voyage, three out of the five pillars are shown - prayer, almsgiving, and pilgrimage. In The Kite Runner, the Taliban are seen as fundamentalists, with their draconian way of punishing those who are caught committing adultery. In one scene, a man and a woman are pelted to death by the Taliban. This scene might be perceived as unreal by many, but in fact, resonates truth in certain countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, where syariah or Muslim laws are upheld. Stoning the adulterer does portray Islam in an unfavourable light––and it makes people question, ‘If Allah is All-forgiving and All-merciful, why then is this inhumane and terrible punishment necessary?’

In both films, the issue of alcohol drinking in Islam is explored. Le Grand Voyage portrays how Mustapha, a character who helps them at the Syrian-Turkish border and hitches a ride with them to Mecca, convinces Reda that drinking beer is acceptable, as long as his good deeds are enough to cloud this little ‘sin’. Mustapha quotes a Sufism saying:

Let me tell you a story. Someone asked a Sufi master who drank wine whether alcohol is forbidden in Islam. The Sufi master answered, ‘It depends on the greatness of your soul. Pour a glass of wine into a basin of water, and the water changes colour. But pour the same glass of wine into the sea, the sea’s appearance remains unchanged.

Those viewers who are not well-versed with Islam would think that this is true, but in truth, it is not. While once upon a time, drinking wine was permitted in Islam, it is no longer permissible now. Such misrepresentation of Islam might lead to misinterpretation, but the reliability of Mustapha is questioned when he supposedly scoots off with their money.

In The Kite Runner, Amir points out to his father that drinking alcohol is a sin, as taught by the mullahs, Islamic religious teachers. His father vehemently replies that the only sin is theft and explains how other transgressions are ‘a variation of theft’ by giving examples such as these––When you kill a man, you steal a life. You steal his wife's right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone's right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness. What these two scenes reflect is how certain individuals distort the truth by rationalising their acts with all sorts of excuses.

Islamic symbols are also presented in both films in the form of the tasbih, which comprises 99 rosary beads, the mosque, the prayer book, and the taqiyah, a short rounded cap used by Muslim men, while lesser-known rituals such as the tayammum (using sand, instead of water for ablution), and bathing the dead are also shown. In Le Grand Voyage, the Hagia Sophia is briefly mentioned, but what it symbolises is the historical journey from being a church to a mosque, and then a museum now.

In both films, the concept of the journey or voyage is presented in a symbolic ways––the journey transcends the geographical terrain as it embodies the journey within, which is of spirituality. The protagonists of both films develop their character and learns a powerful lesson about the power of faith. Reda finally gives alms to an old beggar woman on the street, and Amir redeems his guilt by going back to Afghanistan and facing the Taliban to rescue Hassan’s son.

In terms of complexity of themes, The Kite Runner explores a whole range of issues, be it political, social, or historical. It juxtaposes the binaries in the real world – rich versus poor, religious versus irreligious, cowardice versus bravery, traditional versus modern, and many more. It is also more emotionally charged because it explores the oppression of the Hazaras, the effects of childhood trauma, and the blind but endearing loyalty of Hassan to Amir.

In conclusion, both films have managed to successfully present the current challenges faced by the Muslim communities around the world, especially those 80% which are found outside of Saudi Arabia. Globalisation, mass migration, and modernisation have indeed affected how Muslims lead their lives in the Western world, reflecting the constant struggle to maintain the Islamic identity, and at the same time, embracing the secularised world.


Appadurai, A. (1996). Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization: University of Minnesota Press.

Butt, M., & Wohlmut, K. (2006). The Thousand Faces of Xena: Transculturality through Multi-Identity. In Gentz, N and Kramer,S. Eds, Globalization, Cultural Identities and Media Representation. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Ferroukhi, I. (Director). (2004). Le Grand Voyage [Motion picture]. Pyramide Distribution.

Forster, M. (Director). (2007). The Kite Runner [Motion picture]. Paramount Home Entertainment.

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