Director: Siddiq Barmak
Starring: Marina Golbahari, Zobeydeh Sahar
United Artists 2003
Producer and director Siddiq Barmak headed the Afghan Film Organization from 1992 until 1996, when with the rise of the oppressive Taliban regime he was forced into exile. With the fall of the Taliban, Barmak returned to Kabul and began production of the country's first feature length film in forty years -- constructing a seamless and beautifully told narrative about the life of a young girl who poses as a boy to ensure her family's survival.
After decades of war, returning refugees in the Taliban movement emerged as the dominant political force in Afghanistan, controlling most of the country and claiming that they alone could mend the shattered pieces of their motherland by enforcing a strict social code derived from their interpretation of Shari'a (Islamic law) and local tribal law. In pater familias, Barmak focuses on the hardships women in particular faced under these laws -- which forbade women to work outside of the home, attend school and move freely about in public without the head-to-foot covering known as the burqua and the companionship of a husband, son or brother. Barmak effectively attacks this system by asking what happens to the women who have no benevolent male on which to rely. (A question that, in my opinion, should also be put to evangelicals in this country who long for a return to the days of the pater familias.
In the opening sequence, a large group of women in gold and blue burquas march peaceably through the crumbling streets of a Kabul suburb carrying small children and signs declaring that they are widows and orphans, chanting, “We want work. We are not political, we are hungry.” The Taliban respond with bullets, and turn a fire hose on the unarmed women and children.
After witnessing the demonstration and being told she can longer work as a nurse (the Taliban banned women from working in Kabul hospitals in 1997), a widow (Zobeydeh Sahar) tearfully laments the loss of her husband and brother to the Kabul war and the war with the Russians. When she declares that she wishes her twelve-year-old daughter had been born a son, her mother chides her and hatches a plan to cut the girl's hair and dress her as a boy so that the girl, who acquires the name Osama, can work to support them.
Though Barmak drew his cast from the refugee camps and streets of Kabul, it would be wrong to characterize the performances as amateurish. This is particularly true of young Marina Golbarhari who in her turn as Osama carries the tension of the story well as she winds her way through crowds of men totting rifles, trembling with fear at the thought of discovery.
Through Osama's charade, Barmak also allows the audience to see how men also suffered at the hands of the Taliban; those who know Osama's secret and try to help her, a shopkeeper and street urchin, place themselves in danger as well. Regardless of their fathers' wishes, the boys in the town are rounded up and taken to a school run by the Taliban for indoctrinization. It is at school that Osama is finally outed, not by her teachers, but by her peers who tease her for her feminine appearance until the adults also take note.
The movie is based on a true story, and like many of the stories that emerged from the brutal regime there is no happy ending for Osama. Barmak is none too subtle in his indictment of the Taliban. He is an apt filmmaker, however, and Osama is a pleasure for the eyes if not for the heart.
Barmak's film seems particularly relevant in light of recent reports that despite the imposition of “American-style democracy” many of the oppressive practices of the Taliban still thrive in some areas of Afghanistan. A recent article in The New York Times described the disturbing trend of self-immolation among young women who have been forced into marriage. After September 11, hawks eagerly co-opted the discourse of feminists and human rights organizations as further justification for military action against the Taliban.
As the incendiary finale of Osama reveals, most fundamentalist movements are more about the avarice of powerful men than ideals.