The first movie made in Afghanistan since the Taliban came into power in 1996, the first feature-length film by director/screenwriter/editor Siddiq Barmak, and the winner of this year’s Golden Globe award for best foreign-language film, Osama catapults its director into the first rank of filmmakers. In just 82 minutes he conveys the helplessness and corrosive fear of life under a totalitarian regime — with a minimum of dialogue and without the wall-to-wall mood music that carpets so many movies these days. Instead, Barmak simply and unhurriedly tells an elegantly constructed story, letting us share his characters’ trepidation and horror as it unfolds.
As the movie opens, a group of women swathed in burkas gather to demonstrate for the right to work. They’re chased off the street by Taliban with cudgels, guns, and high-pressure hoses, and those who don’t escape are herded into cages. Later on, we see the “infidel” journalist who was filming the demonstration sentenced to death for his transgression while another Westerner is sentenced to be stoned to death for “advocating profanity,” a trumped-up charge apparently aimed at getting rid of a woman who doesn’t know her place.
Meanwhile our heroine, a 12-year-old girl (Marina Golbahari) who lives with her mother and grandmother, starts out as a virtual prisoner in her one-room house. The men in the family have all died in the warfare that has been decimating the country for decades, and the Taliban forbids women to attend school, to work, or even to go out in public without a male escort.
With no money left and no way to earn more, the women of this shrunken family are reduced to disguising their beloved child as a boy and sending her out to work, although she’s terrified of what will happen if her secret is discovered. We see enough of how the Taliban operate to understand something of the risk she takes every time she sets foot outside her door — especially once she winds up in a madrassa under the watchful gaze of a black-bearded Talib.
What we can’t imagine from the comfort of our easy chairs we can read in the actors’ faces and body language. Filming began less than a year after the fall of the Taliban, and “the shadow of the Taliban was still in their own minds and their hearts,” Barmak says of his cast on his DVD commentary. The director spotted Golbahari, who was 12 at the time, when she was begging on the streets of Kabul. “I was so moved by her eyes,” he says. “I was sure she had seen a lot of suffering.” He later learned that her father was arrested several times for selling music, which was forbidden by the fundamentalist regime. The trauma Golbahari lived through is expressed in her gravity and stillness as Osama, who smiles only once, and then only briefly. It’s also in the hopeless sound of her crying and the wariness with which she moves through the world.
If you’re getting the impression that this is a dirge of a movie, you’re right. But there’s too much life in here to leave viewers totally deflated. For one thing, there’s the poetry of cinematographer Ebrahim Ghafuri’s work, from the opening scene in which a cloud of incense released by a lively street kid wafts over the women streaming past on their way to the demonstration, their blue burkas bright against a cartload of deep orange pumpkins.
For another, there’s the porthole offered by fantasy. When things are at their bleakest, Osama sometimes pictures herself skipping rope. There’s an elegiac tone to the slow-motion footage, since conjuring up her lost childhood makes her sad, but her memories also offer her a means of escape.
Then there are moments of black-comic relief, like when the potbellied mullah at the madrassa teaches the boys how to do their ritual baths, enjoying himself a little too much. Or when Osama plants one of her newly cut braids in a pot of dirt, watering it with an IV tube her mother brought home from the hospital where she used to work.
A wide and welcome streak of kindness also runs through the story. The Afghanistan of Osama is a deeply civilized nation temporarily under the thumb of barbarian invaders. The boys at the madrassa can be mindlessly cruel, but almost everyone else helps one another, even at great personal risk. That gives us reason to feel hopeful, since we know, as Osama does not, that the Taliban’s days in her country are numbered.
Update: Just read this September 2010 New York Times story and learned that the practice of girls dressing as boys has a long history in Afghanistan.