How’s this for a daring title? Osama. But I suppose that Afghan writer/director Siddiq Barmak wasn’t counting on the American multiplex audience when he released his film. He couldn’t have taken very much for granted, in fact. The fact that this film exists at all is a miracle.
Osama tells the story of a young Afghan girl who, under Taliban rule, is forced to pass herself off as a boy so that she can work and bring home a little bread to her beleaguered family. The ruse doesn’t work very well, and young “Osama”‘s life goes from bad to worse. As did the lives of virtually all women under the mad (to Western eyes) reign of the Taliban.
The story behind the making of the film is almost as compelling as the work itself. Before the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, Barmak was a short-film and documentary maker, and the head of the Afghan Film Organization. The mullahs ordered his work and all other traces of Afghan film destroyed. After the Taliban’s defeat in 2002, Barmak went back to work. According to an interview with Jill Serjeant of Reuters, Barmak found the only 35mm camera left in the country, repaired it, and then began the impossible-sounding task of casting his film. In search of actors, he went to markets, refugee camps, and the street itself—where he found his lead, Marina Golbahori, begging.
He went on to make a film that won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, and his work has been compared favorably to the Italian neo-realist classics of post-WWII. The comparison is instructive, as is the contrast. Like, say, Roberto Rossellini, who shot Open City with mostly amateur actors in Rome during the waning days of the war, Barmak used the literal ruins of war, and the haunted faces of real-life survivors, to give Osama the gravitas of witness. This is easier said than done. In the Afghan case, Barmak had to explain to his cast that the word “movie” can refer to something other than a Bollywood musical. The idea that a film could be made about their own real-life suffering was a very foreign notion to his cast. And the subject matter itself must have been somewhat touchy, perhaps even dangerous. Barmak not only depicts the abuses of the Taliban, but he also takes the viewer behind the closed doors of a madrassa to depict some surprisingly risqué practices. A good deal of film time is spent showing the ablution a boy should perform to purify himself after having a wet dream. Surely there are dangerous people in Afghanistan and Pakistan who didn’t appreciate this scene at all.
I suppose that the reason the ablution scene goes on so long is that it represents a make-or-break moment for “Osama” (we never learn her real name). Not long after her desperate mother and grandmother cut her hair and send her out to work, Osama is gathered up by the mullahs and sent, along with all the other local boys, to study the Koran in the morning and learn guerrilla technique in the afternoon.
Here’s where we learn just how unconventional a film this is. In typical Western depictions of “passing,” whether it’s a girl posing as a boy, or a Jew pretending to be an Aryan Youth (Europa, Europa, for example), the story’s suspense—and entertainment value—comes from the pluck of the young trickster. The audience can suffer with the protagonist as the young Jew outwits the pompous Nazi, and then revel in the triumph of wit over ox-like menace.
But Barmak shows little interest in entertaining here, or in conventional story-telling. His girl-Osama doesn’t have an ounce of pluck to either of her names. Her family forced her out into the world, where she whimpered in dread of discovery, until, sure enough, the discovery comes. In other words, you’ll feel only pity, and not admiration for young Osama. No Yentl, she is simply incapable of pretending to be a boy. She freezes and cries at every test.
The one character who behaves in recognizably heroic fashion is Espandi (Arif Herati), the street boy who knows Osama’s secret, and seems to fall in love with her. He risks his life trying to protect Osama from the madrassa bullies, and in his protective zeal, unwittingly proves their taunts that Osama is a girly-boy to be even more true than they’d imagined.
Osama’s one moment of courage comes when she pulls off the wet-dream ritual. Luckily for her, they didn’t have to expose their genitals, even as they were being told in great detail how to wash them. “Do you begin with the left or the right?” the mullah asks rhetorically. “Only God knows.”
Osama’s pretense unravels pretty quickly (this is in fact a rather short film), and she is subjected to Taliban justice. In perhaps the film’s most harrowing scene, we see the public execution of a foreign man and a foreign woman—he’s shot and she’s stoned, both off camera.
It’s not the mob frenzy that is most unsettling here. It’s the nicely conveyed realization that some men are troubled by the judge’s inattention to important details of Islamic law. “Where is the witness?” one man whispers to his companion, and then looks pained at the other man’s whaddaya gonna do? shrug. But even the skeptics feel compelled in join in the stoning.
Osama is spared from death when the judge mysteriously grants her a reprieve, then hands her over to an aged and cruel mullah who wants her as his latest bride.
Here’s where Osama really diverges from the conventional. The viewer wants the dirty old man’s head on a stake, and we hope that Osama will finally screw up her courage and lop it off. Or, failing that, that the splendid young Espandi will rescue her, and kill the old man while he’s at it. But the film doesn’t offer that kind of release. Osama is a helpless victim to the end, as are the mullah’s various other wives. (He seems to have more than the four allowed by law.)
So, you’ll leave the theater feeling impressed with Barmak’s filmmaking abilities, but quite bummed by the story he’s told. More to the point, you’ll feel shock and horror at the portrait he has drawn of a society gone mad with woman-hate.
David Theis is the author of Rio Ganges.