If you are having trouble remembering what the war on terrorism is all about, or if you just want to have an unforgettable movie experience, check out Osama, the 2003 release from Afghan writer-director Siddiq Barmak. The movie opens with an inexplicable screech, and propels the audience into a street scene somewhere in Afghanistan with no explanation or context, showing a bright-eyed dusty-faced urchin (Khwaja Nader) offering hexes for dollars. Nearby a mob of women, a bobbing sea of blue burkas, parades down a narrow avenue demonstrating for jobs. Chaos ensues when the Taliban show up with guns and fire hoses, having not taken kindly to this act of civil disobedience. The camera flees with the demonstrators, down back alleys, through dark doorways, and for the unlucky, into wire cages. None of this is explained; the movie disorients from the beginning, and imposes a tension that does not diminish throughout. The film would not have been possible in Taliban Afghanistan, cinema having been outlawed in 1996, along with television and music. Ten days after the ban, Barmak fled to Pakistan, a wanted man, and stayed there until 2002. Osama is his first feature, and the first to come out of Afghanistan since its liberation. It documents life under the Taliban, but is not a documentary as such; it is closer to a horror movie.
Osama tells the story of a young girl, played by 13-year-old Marina Golbahari, a convincing actress who was discovered scavenging on the streets of Kabul. (Most of the children in the film are real-life street kids.) She plays the daughter of a female doctor who is forbidden to practice under Taliban law. In fact, women are not allowed to work at all. Since the men of their family are either dead or refugees, Marina is forced to find work posing as a boy. The movie is a cross between Yentl and 1984, though most of the story is true, a composite account based on tales Barmak collected while in Pakistan and after his return.
The film is a microcosm of the Taliban utopia, a convincing portrait of life under totalitariansm. It touches several of the themes one would expect, such as the hypocrisy of the ruling class, the pervasive unease generated by the randomness of authority, and the little acts of rebellion people engage in to maintain their humanity. Barmak is particularly focused on the subjugation of women, and feminists would benefit from the perspective the film provides. Forget the alleged wage gaps and glass ceilings, this is actual oppression. (One scene gives new meaning to the expression “wedlock.”) Osama bin Laden is mentioned, but plays no particular role (he is not the title character). Yet, these were the people with whom he made common cause, and this is the society his movement seeks to export to the world. Al Qaeda released a statement in the fall of 2002 stating, “We regret to inform [the United States] that you are the worst civilization in history.” Comparing our way of life to that depicted in Osama, the battle lines in the war of civilizations could not be clearer.
The townfolk live in nondescript mud and brick houses, any expressions of individuality or private life either carefully hidden or destroyed. There are few personal possessions, and almost everything looks old and worn, apart from the Taliban’s weapons. There are some striking scenes of outdoor gatherings near crumbling buildings, the surviving remnants of a more prosperous age, reminiscent of the ruins at the end of Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire series. One has to remind oneself that this is not a set, the movie was filmed on location. Post-Taliban Afghanistan is making important progress towards reconstruction, but one understands why Marina Golbahari’s contemporaries Asadullah and Naqibulah, who were detained by Coalition forces in the Fall of 2001 and repatriated last January, miss their cells in Guantanamo and want to come to America.
Barmak makes good use of sound and imagery throughout. The few slow-motion sequences are subtle, and one scene has a group of women being herded into a cage with the faint sound of chickens squawking in the background, which may have been unplanned, but I’ll give him credit for it. The editing is sharp, and there are some twists in the structure of the film that keep it from being episodic. The last ten minutes tie up plot elements one may not realize exist. The end is surprising; the audience at the showing I attended let out a gasp.
Osama won Special Mention at Cannes, Best First Feature at the London Film Festival, the 2003 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign-Language Film, but for some reason missed the Academy Awards. The production cost was $46,000, which goes to show that if you have good writing and some visual imagination you can make a great film on a low budget. And this is not another tiresome independent film trying self-consciously to be “an independent film,” it is a pure non-Hollywood product. Osama is showing at only two dozen cinemas nationwide, but has grossed over half a million dollars in five weeks; its per-screen average last weekend was higher than 50 First Dates. This is a movie that deserves a much higher profile. It challenges intellectually and emotionally, and it reminds us that unfortunately evil exists in the world. Osama is an antidote to the messages from politicians seeking to find ways to minimize the impact or the purpose of the war. Anyone who thinks that threats like al Qaeda and the Taliban can be defeated by lawyers and diplomats might walk out of the theater with a clearer perspective.