Film critics are normally pretty dispassionate folks in my experience – so imagine what it is like being in a cinema surrounded by their gasps and groans. This should give you some indication of the emotional devastation that comes from watching the great film Osama. The summary of writer/director Siddiq Barmak is that Osama is ‘the story of a little girl and all of the injustice and religious madness that is carried on her own slender shoulders’.
The story begins in Kabul near the beginning of the Taliban’s stranglehold on the remains of that city. The heroine is a 12-year-old girl whose mother is a doctor until the regime closes the hospital. With starvation as the inevitable result, the grandmother launches a plan to pass the girl off as a boy and find her a job in a shop. Soon the Taliban rounds up all boys and takes them to a Taliban training camp to learn the Koran, genital ablutions and warfare. The girl’s only friend at the camp gives her the name Osama. There is some suggestion that the children will be trained to fight for Bin Laden, but the story is confined to an inward-looking society that surely reflects the reality of Afghan isolation at the time if not now.
All the Taliban era signals are here; starving widows, contraband radios, musical instruments and photographs, executions and a palpable overriding fear. The girl’s death seems just moments away for most of the film and her final fate is absolutely devastating to an extent that is only very subtly foreshadowed. Comparisons with another depiction of the experience of women under the Taliban in the film Kandahar are inevitable.
Osama however has none of that films sketchy editing and sound quality but is beautifully realised by everyone involved including cinematographer Ebrahim Ghafuri. Barmak deftly presents the story with respect for the audience’s intelligence to understand the Taliban’s capacity for violence and misogyny without pummelling the point home.
Osama has already won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and among other awards was the Cannes Youth Jury’s Best Film. The director returned from exile in Pakistan to resume his managing role in the Afghan Film Organisation and made this; the first feature film made in post-Taliban Afghanistan. His previous films had been destroyed by the Taliban. Osama was finished in March 2003 and made with a cast of non-actors.
No doubt there are people who would see the story portrayed here as a vindication of the great war for women’s liberation recently waged upon Afghanistan, but one should not forget that the Taliban received nothing but support from the USA while carrying out atrocities before September 2001. Fortunately we also have an equivalent work, albeit totally fictional, depicting the Bush ideology in The Handmaids Tale. I would like to believe that girls and women are no longer under persecution in Afghanistan but unfortunately stories like this one are not yet consigned to history.