by Eric D. Snider
Released: February 6, 2004
In addition to being a fairly well-made motion picture, "Osama" is also valuable as a historical record of what life was like in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
Written, directed, produced and edited with an unflinching eye by Siddiq Barmak, "Osama" is the first film shot in Afghanistan since the end of the Taliban. It depicts a world where women are subjugated to an extreme degree. A woman cannot leave the house unless she is accompanied by a man, which becomes a problem for a particular family when all of its male members have been killed in the various wars. The Taliban doesn't make exceptions for widows; apparently, they are expected to simply stay in the house and hope someone brings them some food sometime.
Having no other recourse, the mother of this family (played by Zubaida Sahar, who, like everyone else in the film, is not a professional actress) cuts her 12-year-old daughter's hair, dresses her like a boy, and helps her get a job at an old family friend's shop. The girl, now going by the name Osama (Marina Golbahari), is terrified but sees there is no other way to save her family.
Soon, Osama is whisked off to war camp, where all the young boys are given military training. A Dickens-esque street urchin named Espandi (Arif Herati) knows her secret and helps her keep it, a feat which becomes increasingly difficult as time goes by.
There are no histrionics or emotional manipulations in the movie. Its view of the Taliban government is frightening precisely because we understand it to be real; dramatic exaggerations are unnecessary. Barmak tells Osama's story in a fashion that is disturbingly matter-of-fact, and Golbahari is heartbreaking in the role. When Osama's secret is discovered and a burka is placed over her head, it might as well be an iron mask or a set of shackles.
Stories similar to this one have been told before -- I refer you specifically to the Iranian film "Baran," though Disney's "Mulan" bears a few similarities, too -- but never in a manner so harrowing. I suspect Western viewers will be amazed that such conditions ever existed for women, and appalled that they existed so recently.
It is interesting to note, by the way, the characters' reactions to the Taliban. For the most part, people don't view breaking the Taliban's rules as going against the will of God; they don't say it outright, but they don't seem to believe the Taliban is exactly inspired in its leadership. The female characters hate their lives and say the Taliban has ruined them. So who supports the Taliban? The men, of course.
Rated PG-13, thematic elements
1 hr., 22 min.; in Dari and Pushtu (those are languages, apparently), with subtitles
Copyright © Eric D. Snider.
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