Afghan boys don't cry
"Osama," the first film made in post-Taliban Afghanistan, is a gripping small story with big implications about what happens when a desperate family commits the unthinkable crime sending a daughter out in boy's clothing to earn a living.
By PETER THEIS
In the cinema of witness, a movie's merit lies largely in its
fidelity to the reality of oppression. Yet the film has to have more else
it would only be journalism. In the first film made in post-Taliban
Afghanistan, writer/director/editor Siddiq Barmak succeeds, skillfully and
without a false note, in making an engrossing drama of life under the
Taliban. It is an Ockham's razor of narrative and image which reaches out
from the screen and cuts the viewer; more than the heart bleeds as the
twelve-year old protagonist (Marina Golbahari) negotiates her impossible
The film takes place sometime after the rise of the Taliban, and
opens with a scene of a demonstration. Women clad in blue burqas cascade
down a dusty hill, demanding the right to work to feed their families. These
are women without men, who were taken over years of war and chaos.
Notwithstanding the chanted qualification to the women's demands, "We are
not political!" the Taliban know what Western feminists teach: the personal
is the political. Through weapon and water cannon, the Taliban break up the
|Written and directed by: Siddiq Barmak.|
Cast: Marina Golbahari, Arif Herati, Zubaida Sahar, Gol Rahman Ghorbandi, Mohamad Haref Harati, Mohamad Nader Khadjeh, Khwaja Nader, Hamida Refah.
Choreography by: Ebrahim Ghafori.
In Dari with English subtitles.
Related links: Official site
Barmak conveys the violence obliquely. The agents of the Taliban
are left out of frame, and the carnage is mostly symbolic. A ruined burqa
washes down the street as the demonstrators scream and flee pell-mell.
Barmak's indirect approach evokes the nature of Taliban repression. It is
not excessive; no massacre is needed. Just enough to sow fear and terror.
Throughout the film, Taliban agents are omnipresent to police even the
slightest departure from prescribed gender conduct, even in private spaces.
Their malevolence, even without violence, is strongly felt.
The young protagonist, not named, gets caught up in the
demonstration, and she is terrified. To her pre-adolescent eyes, the
ubiquitous Taliban men are inexplicable bogeymen, raw representives of
menace. But for lack of any other option, the mother (Khwaja Nader) insists
that her understandably trepid daughter pass as a boy, and go out among the
bogeymen to work. Although the request seems extreme, the mother is simply
applying the logic of deception that allows every woman to survive.
Throughout the film, women must dissemble constantly, pretending that they
are mourning when they are celebrating, and pretending that they are with a
male relative when they are not. Passing, in one form or another, is the
However, the girl's act of deception is made difficult when she is
drafted, along with every other village boy, into the local madrassa, a
religious school. Her inability to execute boyish rites of masculinity she
can't even tie a turban begins to give her away to her schoolmates. In a
desperate attempt to allay suspicion, the girl's one ally, a beggar child
(Arif Herati) who is in on the deception, christens her Osama. Yes, she is
named after Osama bin Laden, who is deemed an ideal of manhood, a warrior.
But even one of the madrassa's clerics (or rather, a satyr in cleric's
clothing) intuits the girl's femininity, likening her to a nymph.
Without giving away too much, the remainder of the film follows the
logic of its premises faithfully and creatively. The narrative unspools
amidst a sequence of striking and symbolic imagery: an abyss of a well, a
ruined lawcourt, a thread of locks. It is a looking-glass world where
womanhood is a tragic flaw, but nonetheless has utility for the men in
charge. The resolution of the film brings this home, proving that gender
disempowerment, no matter what ideology sustains it, ultimately keeps women
where men prefer them most.|
Osama benefits from its spare production (it is the first
post-Taliban film, made on the only 35mm camera in the country). Cinematic
minimalism provides the perfect feel to a story about lack of freedom in a
spartan nation. The performance of the young girl a non-professional found
in the street is natural, conveying all the terror and confusion of her
situation. Most importantly, the story is gripping and unflinching, and
Barmak (who cites Russia's Andrei Tarkovsky and Iran's Abbas Kiarostami as
influences) deploys a subtle symbolism, and memorable imagery, which
reinforces the narrative arc. The result is a film of power, with its
despair on its sleeve.
Of course, a detached observer might cast a wary eye towards this
film's reception in America, given the political establishment's interest in
Afghanistan and reductive view of Islam. Will this film contribute to the
new Orientalism which demonizes Islam and rationalizes armed intervention?
Will this film contribute to the idea that Taliban Afghanistan was merely a
unique aberration now an artifact in squashing the rights of women beneath a reign of men?
|Barmak's indirect approach evokes the nature of Taliban repression. It is
not excessive; no massacre is needed. Just enough to sow fear and terror.|| |
These questions and others must be asked, but Barmak can likely be
absolved from any complicity. His film is a local one, concerned with the
specific techniques of fear and control through which the Taliban ruled. He
makes no generalization of Islam, but condemns a police society where women
must surrender any semblance of life upon pain of death. To the extent that
his film is a well-imagined dramatization of a life under that poisoned
social model, it deserves its accolades, and an audience.
|FEBRUARY 6, 2004|
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