If you were expecting the first film to emerge from Afghanistan since the defeat of the Taliban to be even remotely celebratory, you'll have to adjust your expectations. Radically. In Osama, filmed in 2002 and 2003 in a "suburb" of Kabul, writer-director Siddiq Barmak is not interested in showing us images of liberation or reconstruction. Instead, he turns the clock back a few months to paint a picture of just how barren, bleak and terrifying life under the Taliban had become.
Barmak's story, about a young girl (Marina Golbahari) who attempts to pass as a boy in order to earn money for her starving family, is allegorical: His protagonist is one Afghan girl and every Afghan girl at the same time. In this case, the girl is an only child. She has lost her father (a freedom fighter, he died after 14 years of battling the Russian occupation), and her mother, a nurse, is no longer permitted to work. Her grandmother, a loving woman full of stories, is equally helpless. The family has no way to feed itself -- until the grandmother remembers an old folktale about a boy who wanted to be a girl. With little fanfare (and, seemingly, no acknowledgement of the gravity of the stakes), she suggests that they dress the granddaughter as a boy and send her out to work.
One of the most interesting things about this film -- and, though unforgiving, it has a certain loveliness -- is that the granddaughter is frightened and unwilling. She knows that, if caught, she will be killed, and she cries in desperate protest. In fact, she weeps through most of the film, even (perhaps especially) when it is to her distinct disadvantage. In a striking antidote to the Hollywood version of the child-as-family-savior, she never screws her courage to the sticking place; she never grows bold or brash; she never lowers her voice, affects a swagger, or learns to push and shove on the playground. Instead, she is always tender and vulnerable and on the brink of collapse.
It's not easy to watch. The plot sees the wretched child through one trial after another; just when a less honest film would provide relief in the form of a pleasant scene or interaction, this one twists the knife a little deeper into the gut. The girl is employed for a short time at a grocer's, but her employer leaves for Pakistan. Then she's forced to attend a religious-military school (there is talk of being trained to serve Osama bin Laden), where she is tormented and even tortured, first for being an effeminate boy and then for being found out as a girl. From there, things get really bad.
At the school, the young girl does have an ally, a boy who knows she's a girl and tries to protect her. He names her "Osama," seemingly without irony (perhaps, indeed, to suggest loyalty to the Taliban). The boy's display of kindness in a world where survival is constant work and violence an imminent threat is a small comfort; of course, against the force of the Taliban (and the willing compliance of the other schoolboys), his single voice is lost.
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In his portrayal of a bleak and miserable existence, Barmak does not spare us. At the same time, he offers small gifts of visual beauty, rising suddenly in the shattered landscape of a ravaged country. There is a women's protest march, in which a river of blue burqas ripples a course through the town, and more than a couple of gentle, patient shots that linger on a single item of clothing or part of the body. In one gorgeous moment, "Osama" wipes a stick figure of a girl in the condensation of a shop window; then she watches through the clear lines of the girl as members of the Taliban thunder past. And Golbahari, the young actress, is stunning; she has doe eyes and an open face.
Barmak's work is uniformly patient, which means he stays with the terror (or misery, or desolation) as much as he stays with the beauty. In one unforgettable shot, he films a crowd fleeing from a hospital to avoid the Taliban. At the tail end of this crowd, hobbling with painstaking care, is a crippled child. Nobody stops to wait for him, and nobody helps him. Instead, the camera observes as he clops one foot and drags the other, always moving, always behind.
Once in a while, Osama lapses; a shot is slightly clunky or the music not quite right for the scene. And though it could be read as nothing but real, Golbahari's performance has essentially only one note. For the most part, though, the film is a miracle of accomplishment, elegant and bold and artful in a world devoid of resources. One look at the bombed-out buildings and barren landscape of the town where the movie was filmed, and you'll wonder how Barmak managed to pull it off.
Finally, Osama blazes with the power of its purpose. Barmak wants us to know exactly how bad it was, and, through the story of a single girl, he shows us.