Osama (2003)


(director/writer/editor: Siddiq Barmak; cinematographer: Ebrahim Ghafuri; music: Mohammad Reza Darwishi; cast: Marina Golbahari (Osama), Arif Herati (Espandi), Zubaida Sahar (Mother), Khwaja Nader (Mullah), Hamida Refah (Grandmother); Runtime: 82; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Barmak Films; United Artists; 2003-Afghanistan-in Dari Farsi with English subtitles)
“An unforgettable harrowing examination of the lives of the Afghan people.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director-writer Siddiq Barmak’s “Osama” won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. Barmak is an Afghan filmmaker trained in Moscow in the 1980’s and influenced in the 1990’s by Iranian cinema and by his mentor Mohsen Makhmalbaf. He takes a sledge-hammer approach to the material by stripping the story of any subtlety or sentimentality. That leaves a simple but most effective portrait of the Taliban’s cruelty. It lays out the bleakest of prospects for the Afghani citizens under such an oppressive and misogynistic regime, in a film that is so straightforward and honest and unbearable to comprehend in its depiction of cruelty. There’s a special sense of poetical beauty in the unrelenting suffering the filmmaker presents in such a devastatingly no-nonsense and tough-minded way. “Osama” adds up to being an unforgettable harrowing examination of the lives of the Afghan people in Kabul while under the Taliban’s control. It also leaves one thinking about the lingering problems that exist even after the end of Taliban rule. The actors are all nonprofessionals, recruited from within the city of Kabul, and do a wonderful job depicting the tragic historical events that are fictionalized. There is never any doubt about the actors knowing and feeling this story in their hearts, and about the film’s authenticity.

Osama, the first movie to be made in post-Taliban Afghanistan, is the story of a 12-year old girl (Marina Golbahari) who on the insistence of her widowed mother (Zubaida Sahar) and grandmother (Hamida Refah) must disguise herself as a boy to support her family after her breadwinner father and brother have died in the wars. The mother secretly works in the financially strapped hospital posing as a doctor, where she aids the foreign doctors. But the director left, the foreign doctors are arrested, no woman is allowed to openly work in the hospital or for that matter in Kabul, and so the facility closes. Since there’s no man at home, the women can’t leave the house without a male escort and therefore are faced with literally starving to death unless they do something drastic.

After the credits there’s a quote from Nelson Mandela: ”I can forgive, but I cannot forget,” which might explain the filmmaker’s attitude of despising the cruel actions of the Taliban but at the same time he shows them no hatred or does he call for revenge.

The film opens to a protest for the women’s right to work conducted entirely by women shrouded in sky-blue-burkas, but the street demonstration is broken up upon the arrival of the Taliban who disperse the crowd with grenade launchers and water hoses. They also make a number of arrests. Espandi (Arif Herati) is a street beggar, around 12, who boldly approaches members of the crowd with an incense to ward off the evil eye and also offers a local pray to any donor. His day is made when he gets a dollar from a foreign journalist with a camera, a tabu object that will later get him into serious trouble with the Taliban. Meanwhile the forlorn mother and heroine daughter rush home in terror, as they get caught in the middle of the protest and run from the Taliban firing live ammunition in the air.

At home they are faced with starvation and have no choice but to disguise the girl as a boy, which could be a death sentence if she is caught by the Taliban. Granny believes no one will recognize her if she cuts her hair short and puts on her father’s clothes and goes out on the street cross-dressed with a skullcap. The mother goes with her to an old Russian war acquaintance of her husband’s, who recently opened up a grocery shop, and makes arrangements with the kindly man to hire her daughter as a boy worker. But a mullah comes by the store and takes the worker, he assumes is a boy, off to be indoctrinated with many other boys in a bin Laden Islamic military school/camp run by the Taliban. The girl is fearful of being discovered and shows no survival skills but is temporarily protected by the street-wise Espandi, also rounded up, who recognizes her but tells the others that she is a boy named Osama. But there are those Islamic fundamentalist sex education lessons and climbing trees with the other boys that she can’t deal with that soon gives her away, and we are left to watch in horror the sadistic Taliban operate their holy laws in the name of God.

Funding for the film was from the Iranian Ministry Of Culture and from Makhmalbaf’s Film House.


REVIEWED ON 4/20/2004 GRADE: A –