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The Taliban are coming
A film review of OSAMA by Slarek

On the face of it, Saddiq Barmak's Osama is a film very geared up for a discerning American audience. The first film to emerge from post-Taliban Afghanistan, its title alone is a potentially emotive one – Osama Bin Laden remains for many Americans a key bogeyman and symbolic of what they believe they are fighting against – and the film itself is a stern condemnation of the very government that the US-led invasion force successfully toppled. The film seems to confirm all the stories that have been circulated about how the Taliban government operated, and how the strict religious code under which the population is forced to live effectively rendered women as slaves, unable to work and forbidden to show even an inch of skin in public. That the film has already been released on DVD in the US by a major studio – MGM – is surely no co-incidence here.

But this would be a simplistic reading of a film that has come very much from the heart. It is somewhat inevitable that these stories should be repeated here – the plight of women and the religious oppression of the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan have been widely reported, and if Barmak gives us little new information on this score, he does at least show us what we already know from an insider's perspective, and is closer to the events as they occurred than any western take on the subject could possibly be.

At the height of the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, women are forbidden to work, and a widow with a young daughter and mother to feed disguises the daughter as a boy and calls on a past favour to secure her a job at a local store. A short while later, however, the girl is forcibly enrolled in a Taliban-run Koranic school, where, given the name of Osama by a young street hustler who has befriended her, she has to fight to conceal her identity, knowing that she will face probable death if her true gender is discovered.

In many respects this plays like a thriller – there are a fair number of genuinely nail-biting scenes surrounding Osama's possible discovery within the school and at one point on her way back to her house – but the main thrust of the film is inescapably political. Barmak's prime concern here is to show life under Taliban rule, or more specifically life for women under Taliban rule. His approach is sometimes disarming, alternating the expected with the unexpected, with some points made repeatedly and with little subtlety, while others are delivered with deftness and filmic and narrative economy. Our introduction to the mother, for instance, does not present her as a meek victim of religious oppression, but a woman comlaining loudly about losing her job and not being paid. Similarly, the army of blue burka-covered women seen walking purposefully down a street in the opening scenes is almost an iconic image of Afghanistan, but they have gathered not to do the bidding of their husbands or to meet for prayer, but to protest about the lack of rights for women under the Taliban rule, a sight that sends one stall-holder and his goods scurrying in almost comical terror. That the protest is quickly dispersed by Taliban soldiers with water canons is perhaps to be expected. The scene lays out one of Bakkar's key points – women in Afghanistan have not accepted this oppression willingly and yearn for change, but any attempt to effect it is sternly suppressed. It is under this cloud that the main story will play out.

It's in its dealing with the Taliban that the film is at its most direct but also its most interesting. Early on Bakkar seems to go to unnecessary lengths to make sure we know that these are the bad guys, so to speak. The word 'Taliban' seems to be in every third line of dialogue, even in places where it would make little sense to say it – "The Taliban are outside!" shouts one character in a warning that would have been heard by the very people he is trying to look innocent in front of – but not speaking the lingo I cannot testify to how much of this was down to the (presumably American) subtitling. But having done all of this, the Taliban themselves are presented in a very everyday manner, with none of the leering nastiness a Hollywood take on the story would doubtless employ. This reaches its peak during a crucial public trial in which a western reporter is condemned to be shot and a woman is taken off to be stoned to death. The pronouncements are made by a judge lying casually in the sun with no trial or evidence or emotional involvement on his part – he may as well be asking for dirty cutlery to be removed from a his table. This scene cannot help but recall past movie portrayals of corrupt Roman emperors who have often been shown casually ordering executions while being pampered by their slaves and staff, a comparison emphasised by a death sentence being suddenly waived in order to grant a favour to a Taliban instructor. This, of course, may be deliberate – if we associate this sort of behaviour with Ancient Rome, what does it say about a government that was still behaving this way after two thousand years of supposed progress?

Shot on 35mm on the miniscule budget of $46,000, the film never looks for a second like a bargain basement job, with Ebrahim Ghafori's cinematography making excellent use of the locations, costumes and natural light. Very occasionally the tiny depth of field forced by low light interiors renders some shots a little soft, and in the case of one large scale exterior shot which presumably just could not be re-staged, the focus is completely out. Scale is the thing that catches you out about many scenes, from the platoon of women in the opening protest to what looks like an entire town full of young boys in the Koranic school – you have the sense that with no money available, many people participated willingly just to be part of the project. In the part of Osama, Marina Golbahari is genuinely remarkable, all the more so when you consider that she was not a trained actress, but a girl Barmak discovered begging on the street who he felt would be just right for the role. With her hair cut short and dressed in boy's clothes she convincingly passes for a young male, while the very real scars on her face tell their own stories about her doubtless difficult past. It is she that makes the thriller elements work so effectively, and at a key point when she cries out for her mother and her distressed tears fall past the camera into well-water below, it's hard not to feel that Golbahari is drawing on her own memories to produce this level of emotion and the effect is appropriately upsetting.

Followers of Iranian cinema will find plenty of familiar elements here. The issue of an Afghan female forced to adopt a male disguise in order to work was tackled by Majid Majidi in Baran (2001) and many of the situations here were equally well handled by Mohsen Makhmalbaf in Safar e Ghandehar (Kandahar 2001). Interestingly, the latter filmed provoked some negative responses in the west (notably at Cannes), the principal complaint being that the film was merely enforcing entrenched western attitudes to what was going on in Afghanistan, and yet despite pushing the same message in much the same way, Osama seems to have met with approval from the very same quarters. Timing is everything, of course, and Kandahar's surrealistic edge seemed to prove a stumbling block for those who feel that cinema from this particular corner of the world should be strictly of the social-realist school, which is a controlling dictum in itself. One wonders if they even realised that Barmak used staff from Maklhmalbaf's Film House and openly admits to being influenced by Makhmalbaf's movies.

Osama is a gripping film and a powerful condemnation of a regime that few will mourn the passing of. The film does not have an upbeat conclusion – how could it have? – but to some extent one is nonetheless provided by the knowledge that the Taliban are no longer in control of the country and that progress has presumably been made. Just how much is another matter, and in that respect Samira Makhmalbaf's Panj é asr (At Five in the Afternoon 2004), which looks at the situation for women in post-Taliban Afghanistan and suggests things have not changed anything like enough as yet, should be seen as an essential companion piece to this film.


Afghanistan /Japan / Ireland / Netherlands 2003
82 mins
Saddiq Barmak
Siddiq Barmak
Julia Fraser
Julie LeBrocquy
Makuto Ueda
Saddiq Barmak
Ebrahim Ghafori
Siddiq Barmak
Mohammad Reza Darvishi
Marina Golbahari
Arif Herati
Zubaida Sahar
review posted
30 May 2004