Siddiq Barmak plunges the audience into the horror of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in “Osama,” the first feature film to come out of the country since their rule ended. Apart from its historical interest, this tragic tale of religious extremism and misogyny is a very good film able to catch audiences up emotionally. Briskly paced and finely acted by a non-pro cast, pic should find appreciative auds and pic looks headed for wide sales after its Directors Fortnight bow at Cannes.
Story kicks off at the beginning of the Taliban regime, as a girl around 12 (Marina Golbahari) and her mother (Zubaida Sahar) accidentally get swept up in a women’s demonstration for the right to work. Several truckloads of Taliban arrive and scatter them with water hoses. Though visually striking, the scene has an unreal quality because the source of all that water, in what is obviously a parched city, is never shown.
The two women take shelter with a bold little urchin, Espandi (Arif Herati). (He has previously been seen taking money from an unseen cameraman. This scene initially seems a self-referential bit that points to Barmak’s own film crew. However, the segment becomes a legitimate part of the narrative when the fictional cameraman appears: A Western journalist, he’s sentenced to death for daring to photograph around town.)
The women’s demonstration also sets up the social background to the main story. The girl and her widowed mother, who works secretly in a hospital, are nearly arrested when the Taliban close the place and take the women doctors to jail. Forbidden to make a living, the widow and the girl’s aged grandmother hatch a dangerous plan to cut the girl’s hair and dress her in boy’s clothes so she can go out and work.
In this disguise, she starts working for a kindly shopkeeper who’s in on the secret, until she is rounded up with other lads and forced to attend Taliban school. Espandi is there and recognizes her at once but, instead of turning her in, becomes her lone defender. When other boys taunt her as effeminate, he insists she’s a boy named “Osama.”
Scenes inside the school, a large walled compound, are skillfully shot and paced, and the tension grows relentlessly as the girl faces exposure time and again. In a frightening and perverse scene, the old mullah who runs the place has all the boys strip to loincloths and learn to wash their genitals, following his lascivious example. The thunderstruck kids have no recourse but to obey. The girl, who hangs back, is singled out by the mullah, but she courageously manages to fake it.
Her ultimate exposure is terrifying and her punishment is inhuman.
“Osama” conveys the common people’s fear and hatred of the Taliban. A handsome youth in a black turban, who rounds up the boys for the school, is a particularly sinister figure, while the lecherous old mullah is depicted as a devilish ogre living in his castle of horrors.
Much of film’s force comes from young Golbahari’s amazingly mature perf, aged before her time but still a child capable of crying for her mother. Her cropped hair gives her the look of a Joan of Arc on her way to trial and martyrdom. Herati, another inexperienced actor found on the streets of Kabul, hits the right unsentimental note as her protector.
Lensed by Ebrahim Ghafuri, pic includes some typically symbolic images, like the recurrent one of the girl imagining she’s jumping rope, that strongly recalls Iranian cinema. At the same time, pic has a distinctive style and narrative coherence all its own.