Siddiq Barmak, the Afghan director of Osama, was forbidden from making motion pictures in his native land. He had to wait until his Taliban overlords posed no threat, and that didn’t come until the American invasion and the eventual overthrow of the Taliban. The Islamic fundamentalists who ruled the incredibly rugged and war-torn landscape would be none too happy with Barmak’s portrayal of their governing skills. The hellish dictatorship, and specifically its treatment of women, is the focus of Barmak’s simple and terrifying tale.
Barmak reveals the horror of brutal religious repression by deciding on a protagonist who must communicate her suffering silently. That is accomplished to incredible effect by the talents of Marina Golbahari, a child actress with eyes so expressive and soulful that they tear right into your heart. Under the yoke of a government that would rather judge and torture than feed, would rather whip a woman for showing an ankle than allow her to work, would train a person to fight the infidel rather than allow people to live peacefully, her eyes mist over permanently, expressing a constant heartbreaking wail that is not allowed to leave her lips.
It is a brilliant stroke of irony that Barmak gives this 12-year-old girl the name of the infamous Al Qaeda leader who is protected and revered by those who are running her country. Just as the Taliban support and protect their revered guest, the name “Osama” is bestowed on her for protection, for she is attempting an end-around to all the restrictions placed on females by disguising herself as a male. It is the only way her mother sees to get a crumb of food into the house that they share with the young girl’s grandmother. As women strike in the streets of Kabul for the right to simply hold down a job, young Osama’s grandmother cuts her hair for the masquerade that will follow.
The young girl manages to work for a short time before the masquerade gets her hauled off to the mandatory “school” for young men, a school that not only provides crack military training but also teaches them the incredibly complicated ablution ritual necessary for the unspeakable sin of nocturnal emission. Inevitably, the young girl’s deception is discovered, and what follows is almost unbearable to watch.
Osama is a harrowing film, one that will haunt you for many days. That’s not a warning, but rather an invitation to experience and never forget what humans are capable of doing in service to a “higher” good.
In Dari with subtitles. Opening at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Road, Bloomfield Hills. Call 248-855-9091.
Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.