By Steven G. Kellman
No, he is not that Osama. And he is in fact a she, a girl who tries to pass for male in the cruel androcracy of the Taliban regime. Osama is not quite as merry as Yentl without music, though it, too, is a story of how dressing for success in a misogynist religious culture means putting on pants. Osama is said to be the first film made in Afghanistan since the zealous mullahs came to power in 1996. Until the Taliban were routed, in 2001, the mere screening of a film was forbidden in Afghanistan. Early in Osama, a foreign photographer is arrested, and he is later executed for doing essentially what Afghan director Siddiq Barmak himself has done - point his camera at man's inhumanity to woman.
Osama opens on a sea of blue burqas; dozens of women march through dusty streets pleading for the right to work and earn their food. A woman and her 12-year-old daughter happen onto the peaceful demonstration, becoming targets with the others of guns and water hoses used to disperse them. Although they narrowly escape injury and arrest, they cannot evade their dire situation. The woman's husband and brother have died in combat, and mother, daughter, and grandmother must find a way to feed themselves when merely venturing out of the house alone can provoke attack from righteous turbaned goons. The solution: Cut the girl's hair, dress her as a boy named Osama, and send her out to work.
Barmak elicits convincing performances from the non-professionals - especially Marina Golbahari as the terrified girl in boy's clothing - he recruited for his cast, and his Neorealist use of hand-held cameras and natural lighting furnishes the film with the feel of documentary. Yet the director gives his characters functions not personalities, making Osama seem more like an allegory of oppression than the story of a particular girl's coming of age in a particularly unhappy time and place. The Handmaid's Tale projects a near future in which the Bible is said to sanction theocratic thuggery. In Osama, the recent past is made into a slough of misery by men who cite Qur'an. The lesson for the present might be to read more wisely and more widely. •