Siddiq Barmak, 2003, Afghanistan, Japan, Ireland, 82 mins, English subtitles
Arif Herati, Marina Golbahari, Zubaida Sahar , Khwaja Nader, Hamida Refah
Post 9/11, through the media, and films like The Circle and Kandahar, the west were made fully aware of the horrific atrocities committed by the Taliban regime. Siddiq Barmak's award winning Osama is the first film to be made in Afghanistan post Taliban. It focuses on the plight of women who under the regime have no rights at all. They cannot attend school, work, walk on the street or speak.
With all their men killed in wars, a family of three generations of women survive by the mother (Sahar) working in secret as a nurse. When she loses her job, they are on the brink of starvation. The grandmother (Refah) says that the daughter (Golbahari) must cut her hair, don her father's clothes and pretend to be a boy so that she can work.
When the girl goes out for the first time, a street boy called Espandi (Herati) recognises her, but says nothing. And when she is drafted into the Taliban training school, he continues her deception, and protects her from a gang of bullies. Espandi tells them her name is 'Osama' in the hope that they will back off.
Under the constant surveillance of the Mullahs, Osama struggles to conceal her identity while trying to get to grips with the rituals of being a man. She successfully manages to avert discovery during training for ablutions after wet dreams. But when the Mullah (Nader) salaciously describes her as a nymph, the boys round on her and demand she proves that she's not a girl. She does so by attempting to climb a tree. However, this results in a punishment where she is hung by a rope inside a well for hours. At this point her menstrual cycle starts with devastating consequences for her.
Barmak's indictment of the regime is subtle, but no less effective in conveying the anxiety of living in a constant state of fear. By using disembodied voices and symbolism, he shows the Taliban as a faceless entity, which lurks menacingly in the background of everyday life. In one scene, the mother is being taken home on a bicycle by her patient's son when they are stopped and aggressively reprimanded by the Taliban because her feet are on display. The camera is kept on the feet throughout.
But the fear is shown most clearly in Osama's petrified face. With her hair cut off, and no burkha to hide under, that terror is more potent. As Osama's grandmother tells her not to worry, that it is possible for everyone to transcend gender, the camera's fixed on Osama's face. Barmak leaves his audience in no doubt that her fate is doomed.
This fact is driven home further with the scenes in the school. Barmak effectively does two things here. Firstly, he builds the dramatic tension. Osama's attempts to get to grips with male customs are punctuated by shots of the Mullahs ever-watchful eyes. You are never quite sure whether they suspect her or not.
Secondly, he puts the Taliban ideology within a social and religious context. The boys rigidly learn what it is to be a Taliban; how to pray, fight and control others. In doing so, Barmak offers some explanation as to how extremist societies are made. Ironically it is in the playground that we see Osama smile for the first, and only time. It's a powerful image. As she watches the boys run, play and laugh with each other, she's completely unaware that they will be her oppressors of tomorrow.
Barmak's film is a disturbing tale of inhumanity in the name of extremist religion. Osama's plight is unbearably heartbreaking.