“I remember,” says Siddiq Barmak, “The first film I saw on the big screen was Lawrence of Arabia. But much more than this, I was paying attention to the light that was coming from behind the dark and small hole. I really wanted to discover for myself what’s behind that wall.” His journey to make that discovery was long and difficult, but at last, he has made Osama, the first film to be produced in Afghanistan since the U.S. initiated its efforts to remove the Taliban. He adds, speaking for “Sharing Hope and Freedom,” an interview included on MGM’s DVD release of the Osama, “The story of the film is a combination of true stories. They’re all based on reality.”
Indeed, Osama begins looking like a documentary. Taking the firsthand view of camera turned on a women’s protest demonstration, the film observes hundreds gathered, in mostly light blue burqas, wielding signs and demanding the opportunity to work. A street boy, Espandi (Arif Herati) approaches the unseen filmmaker, offering to guide him and to bless him with a dose of smoky, protective incense, just as the Taliban arrive, shoving and brutally hosing down the women. As the women are dragged off, arrested, and worse, the cameraman also finds himself assaulted: the frame goes dark.
Marina Golbahari, Arif Herati, Zubaida Sahar, Gol Rahman Ghorbandi
US DVD: 27 Apr 2004
The chaos of this scene is surely jolting. But the composition and rhythm are simultaneously beautiful and abstract, the women’s clothing wafting as they run or fall, the Taliban horde made up of turbaned and bearded, murky figures. The camera takes up the perspective of a 12-year-old girl (Marina Golbahari, whom Barmak recalls meeting for the first time: “I saw her very amazing face and I was so moved by her eyes. Her eyes were telling me a lot of stories”). Accompanying her mother (Zubaida Sahar), the girl barely escapes the brunt of the men’s aggression. Her fear and courage together form the film’s central sensibility.
With her father killed in “the Kabul war,” and her uncle in “the Russian war,” responsibility for supporting the family will soon fall to the girl. When her mother loses her temporary employment as a doctor (her elderly patient dies), the girl must cut her hair and pretend to be a boy, named Osama, in order to support not only her mother, but also her grandmother (Hamida Refah). Touchingly, Osama keeps one of her braids, planting it in a flowerpot she keeps by her bed. It’s a hopeless and hopeful gesture, underlining the contradictions that comprise life under the Taliban.
Culled from so many sources, Osama’s harsh story is often difficult to absorb. Osama’s efforts to deceive and yet to understand her position in such impossible circumstances are hardly comprehensible for many Western filmgoers. “We had to select nonprofessionals,” reports Barmak in “Sharing Hope and Freedom.” “We really wanted to be close to nature, because this film was based on true stories. And we wanted to bring real personalities in my film, with their own experiences, their own nature, and their own emotion.” The emotion Golbahari exposes is complex and delicate, as well as ravaged. “Of course, it was difficult to accept to come on my film and play some role,” says Barmak, “because the Taliban was still in their own minds and their hearts.”
Osama, of course, can’t comprehend reasons for the madness of the Taliban, the cruelty and zealous focus (Barmak asks, “From where is coming this kind of ideology?”). Osama concerns the regime’s many offenses, especially against women. (As Barmak notes in the DVD interview, the process of removal has not been simple or direct, as citizens remain immersed in the culture that so long oppressed them: “Some of [the women],” he says, “are thinking that the burqa is the only possibility to cover their old dresses because they cannot buy a new one… The older women especially, they are used to wearing this.
Young Osama’s endeavors to hide her identity are fraught with her own uncertainty—she’s not sure how to behave, as boys’ routines and culture are so wholly other than her own. She has the wrong shoes, her voice is too high, and she has no concept of how to pray, as all boys must do daily, in groups. Though she’s instructed occasionally by her employer, a man who knew and served with her father, Osama will never be able to keep up with the demands exacted by minute-by-minute surveillance.
Spotted at an afternoon prayer, Osama is rounded up the next day for Madrassa religious and military school: the Taliban trains all boys for Bin Laden’s ongoing wars. Given that they know nothing else, the boys are all more or less eager to learn what it means to be “a man,” that is, how to pray, how to fight, how to dominate, and how to perform ablutions (this lesson goes on for some time, to underline Osama’s fear of discovery). Returning to her mother’s house each evening, Osama changes gears abruptly, working as a girl, by serving food at a wedding (held with the groom in absentia, exiled to Iran), populated entirely by women. When the Taliban come by, the women cover themselves with their burqas and pretend to be wailing at a funeral, which, by implication, they might as well be—whether married, widowed, or single, women have no say over any of their own activities or expectations.
Unsurprisingly, Osama is unable to maintain her deception. At school, though she does her best to act “tough,” climbing trees even though she’s afraid, enduring the taunts of boys who find her “girlish,” she is eventually dealt a traumatic punishment for tree climbing: hung by a rope inside a well for hours, as she sobs for her “mother.” This incident leads directly to the onset of her menstruation. Hoisted from the well, she has blood on her legs, and while the Mullahs do not have her stoned—as they do an unfaithful wife—they do allocate for her a terrible fate.
Though the premise of Osama is categorical—life for women and girls is horrendous—it is rendered in a series of telling images. When Osama’s mother gets a ride home from her client on his bicycle, neglecting to hide her ankles beneath her gown, the Taliban stop them and accuse her of offense. Cinematographer Ebrahim Ghafuri’s camera never even shows their faces, just her feet, at first with ankles visible, then covered, shrunk up into her skirt. Or again, when, following her mother’s out-loud wish that god had never created women, Osama’s grandmother tries to soothe her, stroking her head while she tells a story where gender is mutable (if you walk under a rainbow, you can switch to boy or girl), the camera holds on the girl’s face. It hardly matters that the narrative is so overstated or that the tragedy is so overwhelming. Her face, haunted and grim, offers a simple, resonant, immutable truth.
A recurring image speaks to the life Osama will never have, though she imagines it. In this dream, she’s in prison, the camera sliding across the bars, to reveal blue-burqa-ed women bowed down in horror and submission. And yet, she also sees herself, jumping rope, an activity she attempts in “real life,” but never has space or time to practice. The scene is punctuated with the thunk-thunk-thunk of the rope hitting the floor, as the mobile frame emphasizes the irony of the space she has in the prison of her dream. The diurnal magic and utter impossibility of this simple child’s game are unforgettable.
Barmak closes his interview with observations that are at once obvious and poetic: “Afghan people, they see their own face in this film.” And so, he is optimistic concerning the nation’s future, despite the tragedy that so pervades it. “People of the world, of Afghanistan and other people of the world, they need to drink pure water. And we need to bring them pure and very tasteful water.”