Winner of the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, Osama ranks among the most timely films of the year. The first film to emerge from Kabul following the fall of the Taliban, it remains firmly focused on the social conditions that oppressed Afghans during their reign and is full of despair. Writer-director Siddiq Barmak's 12-year old protagonist cries throughout the story, often at the worst times. The young girl (Marina Golbahari) has sufficient reason for heartbreak—her freedom fighting father has died in battle, her mother has just lost her nursing job due to lack of funding, and the family is starving with no means to support itself.
Inflexible Taliban leaders demand that women stay at home while men work to support the household—hardly tenable in such a war torn region now populated by numerous widows (although polygamous mullas don't see that as a problem). Turban wearing Taliban patrol the streets to make sure women don't roam unattended by a man, and that the ones properly escorted cover their faces and feet under their burqas. An early beautifully photographed scene recalls 1960's civil rights struggles in the Deep South, as dozens of ghostly blue burqa-clad women courageously protest on the streets for the right to hold jobs. Truck cruising Taliban soon weave through the narrow streets to disperse the protestors via machine gun and water hoses. Not even the western journalist filming the scene is safe—branded as an infidel against the "holy Taliban," he later faces their brand of justice.
Fear and uncertainty dominate throughout the modern day Holocaust scenario of dictatorial extremists, who ruthlessly enforce their interpretations of Muslim law on a moment's whim. Knowing that slightest violation can provoke instant executions, the young girl tearfully pleads with her mother not to proceed with the plan of disguising her pass as a boy. She understands that the Taliban would kill her if found out, but the desperate family is starving and only males can work for a living. The mother wails, "I wish God hadn't created women!" Although superficially, the film will be seen as an indictment on the Taliban and the horrible plight of Afghan women, the grandmother wisely remarks that both sexes have it equally bad—there are also boys that have no choices but to work manual labor. She recalls an old folktale about a rainbow that allows a child to change from a boy to a girl and vice-versa.
If young "Osama" (an afterthought of a name made necessary under duress) had "rainbow" abilities, she might very well escape the troubles ahead. But this is no Hollywood film. Initially all is well, as she finds work for an understanding storekeeper who was a military buddy to her father, but soon she is swept up with other village boys by al-Qaida recruiters to attend an all-boys school to learn their brand of Islamic fundamentalism and military training. Termed a "nymph" by one of the school's mullas due to her feminine appearance, Osama increasingly finds it difficult to keep her true identity secret even with the surprising help of gregarious street urchin Espandi (Arif Herati).
Iranian trained filmmaker Barmak utilizes many of the same minimalist techniques as Abbas Kiaroastami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Kandahar), and Majid Majidi (Children of Heaven)—notably by filming on location with non-actors to give the film a realism often lost with more commercial productions. The young protagonist doesn't have to do a whole lot, other than use her intrinsic timidity, keep quiet, occasionally flash a brief subdued smile, and shed tears when scared—and she carries the 82-minute film. Scoring a casting coup, Barmak found her begging on the streets to feed her family, so she fits the part naturally.
His real find, however, is Herati. Discovered in a refugee camp, the engaging young beggar shows remarkable range for an untrained actor. Initially irritating with his persistent scams for money and threats to reveal Osama's secret, he convincingly joins forces to help her and has a great moment near the end where he wordlessly uses his body language to demonstrate his disgust with the Taliban. He didn't save any money from making the film, so he's back at the refugee camp renting out his horse for a few bucks. But other filmmakers would be well served to seek his talents.
Often haunting, Osama delivers a somber and powerful message without offering any simplistic solutions. Evil certainly hasn't ended in the modern world, and Barmak's memorable film reminds us that life continues to be very difficult in this complex corner of the earth. The camerawork often catches images that are destined to remain long after you've finished the final frames—one that stays with me doesn't even involve any of the main characters, but it marks a sobering political reality. It's a long, lingering shot down a hospital corridor. After a number of workers and patients have reached their destination, a crippled boy hobbles down the hallway with no one to assist him. First one foot plops down as he drags the other behind, and somehow we sense that he and his people are destined to continue this journey for a lifetime.