THOUSANDS OF WOMEN parade through dusty streets, covered in blue burqas. They float around the impoverished city like ghosts, their burqas concealing their entire body, from the tops of their heads to their feet. They are chanting, "We are not political. We are widows," as they demonstrate for the right to work. Suddenly, trucks rumble in the distance and the women scatter--screaming men attack the women with fire hoses and live ammunition. A lone blue burqa is washed down the muddy street, and women stare out from their hiding places, crying quietly.
This is the world of director's Siddiq Barmak's debut film, "Osama." The first film produced in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, Barmak explores the suffering of women under the Taliban regime. An unnamed, 12-year-old girl (Marina Golbahari) is forced by her mother (Zubaida Sahar) and grandmother to shave her hair and pretend to be a boy. "But if the Taliban recognize me, they will kill me," she protests. Since her mother's husbands, and all male relations, have been murdered in Afghanistan's numerous wars, the family is in dire need for a male relation to serve as a breadwinner. Under the Taliban, women could not go out in public alone or work for a living--the family faced starvation if Golbahari could not work. It is an absurd plan, highlighting the desperation of Afghan women. Golbahari's high-pitched voice and delicate features put her in danger of capture at every moment, and creates a low-simmering, agonizing tension throughout the film.
SIDDIQ BARMAK fled to Northern Afghanistan, and eventually Pakistan, ten days after the Taliban takeover in 1996. He had served as an aid to slain anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban resistance fighter Ahmed Shah Massoud and first dreamed of making films when, at the age of 5, he saw "Lawrence of Arabia." Barmak cast "Osama" by finding people on the streets of Afghanistan. The mother and grandmother were found in refugee camps. He found his lead, 12-year-old Golbahari, when she approached him begging for spare change. The emotions of "Osama" are real, inspired by the raw memory of the Taliban regime. When the mother cries out, in front of her daughter, that, "I wish I had a son instead of a daughter. I wish God didn't create women" her anguish has a ring of authenticity. When Barmak is asked if his film is fiction or a documentary, he answers, "Yes, it's the reality."
Most of Barmak's citizens have lost their names, their identities supplanted by the totalitarian nature of the State. Our young protagonist is nameless, except for the male name she is given to cover up her true gender. One boy--who knows her secret and attempts to protect her--gives her the name "Osama." He believes it will intimidate the other children, who are beginning to guess her secret. Even in these childhood debates, Osama bin Laden is omnipresent, lurking in the shadows. Bin Laden menaces throughout the film, the puppeteer pulling the strings from behind the scenes. Taliban soldiers are the physical representation of bin Laden's terror. They are marauding incompetents, asserting their authority arbitrarily and irrationally. Golbahari's mother must administer aid to sick patients covertly, always under the fear that the Taliban soldiers will come in and arrest her. At one point, the Taliban burst into the room while she is attending a sick patient. Waving a gun at her, they demand to know what she's doing and she claims the sick man is her father. They inquire as to the location of her male escort, and the sick man's son claims to be her husband. Enraged, the Taliban scream at the man "Idiot! How dare you let your wife speak to a strange man!" A strain of dark humor fills the film: The only thing more ridiculous than the Taliban is the fact that one must be terrified of them.
There is a remarkable lack of bitterness throughout "Osama." The film opens with a quote by Nelson Mandela: "I cannot forget, but I can forgive." Instead of vilifying the Taliban and al Qaeda, the film looks resolutely forward. In the process, Barmak expresses a beautiful and valuable theme: the possibility of survival and joy, even under the most oppressive of regimes. Barmak's camera flashes across the faces of screaming Taliban soldiers, but lingers on Golbahari's fleeting smiles, the few moments when her secret seems safe.
"Osama" could have ended with Golbahari's shrill cries when the mullahs finally, inevitably, discover her identity. Instead, we see her jumping rope in prison, a defiant burst of vitality and color among a sea of mute and unmoving women.
David Kenner is an intern at The Weekly Standard.