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By Mark Sells | April 15, 2004

If I had my way, everyone would be required to watch this film. Not because it’s the greatest film ever made, but because it conveys a really important message, one that is demonstrative, humbling, and true. Inspired by many individual stories, “Osama” relays the tragedy of an Afghan widow and her daughter, living under the discriminate conditions of the Taliban. With no recourse, the daughter must disguise herself as a boy to find work and keep her family alive. Written, directed, produced, and edited by first timer, Siddiq Barmak, the film is an enlightening depiction of the oppression that enslaved an entire nation. Winner of the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, “Osama” is an eye-opening look into the inhumanity and terror inflicted by the Taliban regime.
The film opens in the middle of a civil rights protest. Hundreds of Afghani women, dressed in blue burkhas, are marching in Kabul, rallying for equality, voicing their need for employment, their desire for freedom. But the protest comes to an abrupt end as the Taliban arrive, opening fire on the crowd, dousing many with water, and locking others up in chicken pens. In the middle of the fray, a widow and her 12-year-old daughter frantically race back to their home along with a young Afghan boy, named Espandi. There, they find instant refuge for the time being.
But matters soon get far more complicated. The hospital where the mother works is shut down by the Taliban. And because the governing law forbids women to walk the streets unaccompanied by a male, they find themselves in dire straits, unable to work and make enough money to survive. Desperate, the mother and grandmother concoct a scheme to put food on the table. They will cut the daughter’s hair to make her look like a boy. That way, she will be able to work at a local shop and escort her mother for groceries and job hunting.
Nicknamed Osama, the girl tries to stay awake while stirring warm milk for countless hours every day. Difficult and tedious as it is, it’s work and it pays just enough to provide food for her family. Additionally, she is fortunate to have the protection of a family friend as well as that of Espandi. Both do all they can to keep her secret safe; however, when the shopkeeper’s business goes under, things start to unravel. In particular, school starts. And she is taken by the Taliban, along with the other boys in town, to learn the teachings of the Koran and the finer techniques of absolution. It is here where her true identity is at its greatest risk and her family’s hopes for survival are in immediate peril.
Following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, a civil war erupted in Afghanistan and the Taliban rose to power, promising an end to corruption and chaos. But instead of bringing peace to the region, they inflicted further damage on the country and its people. Although they were able to unite the country, they were unable to end the civil war. Conditions in the city got worse and employment declined dramatically. Of most significance, they enforced a strict set of laws, from improper beard length to theft or blasphemy, with public beatings, amputations, and executions. Most shocking was their treatment of women – girls were forbidden to go to school, women were forbidden to go outside their home unless accompanied by a male relative, and women were required to cover their faces, arms, and legs in order to “protect their virtue.” Such barbaric practices received worldwide attention. And following a brief campaign by the United States and coalition forces, the Taliban was forcibly removed from power in 2001.
“Osama” represents the first Afghan film shot entirely in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. And it represents only one of forty short or feature length films to come out of the country in the last 100 years. Thus, the film is a landmark achievement in many regards. First, there’s absolutely no question that it comes as the result of a great sacrifice. Many women and children suffered and died under the discriminate and violent practices of the Taliban regime, and many will continue to be psychologically affected in the future. Inspired by their stories, director Siddiq Barmak pieced together a very powerful and original film. He used an authentic, amateur cast from Kabul, he shot the film using an Afghan crew, and he wrote, produced, edited, and directed it all himself.
The film is an outward attempt to embrace a nation in mourning, and through it, find inspiration and new life. Says Barmak, “I hope our nation’s pain, sorrows, and suffering shock the audience and change their minds about the future of the human psyche. The Afghan people have many things to say to the world…(and) to realize our dreams, we need international assistance.” Although the Taliban are no longer in power, the after affects will linger. After all, the systematic discrimination and dehumanization of a proud people will take years to overcome. And films such as these are important because not only do they bring attention to such injustices; they demonstrate a universal need for the most fundamental of human rights.
Upon initial observation, the film looks as though it were made a long time ago. It’s deceptive because you wonder how such primitive conditions and actions could take place in the modern world. And yet, they do. Kudos to cinematographer, Ebrahim Ghafuri, for his truthful, simple frames. Without question, the film could have been more graphic and explicit. It could have shown the bloodshed and violence as a result of public executions and enforcement penalties. But Barmak shows remarkable restraint, cleverly masking the brutality by cutting away or inserting the sound of a creaking door. Though a little choppy in parts, he emphasizes the right angles, opting to show a woman’s feet carefully covered up when the Taliban approach. Or a lock of hair that is placed in soil. And then there’s Osama’s simple dream of jumping rope, being a child. Through these subtle techniques, the film’s purpose becomes evident – to artistically highlight the persecution of women in Afghanistan and to bring attention and understanding to a country in need.
Why this film was not considered for an Academy Award is beyond me. It is political, timely, and significant – it demands our attention. “Osama” is an unspeakable tragedy of oppression and fascism. And very rarely will you find a film that beautifully balances political statement with artistic expression. The mere fact that it got made took an act of courage. And watching it, we become more aware of the simple, unalienable rights that we so often take for granted. To put it all in perspective, the next time you catch yourself overreacting to Janet’s exposed breast, Britney’s social mishaps, or Jessica’s ditzy dilemmas, try and remember the 12 year old Afghan girl, who constantly lived in fear, lost her father to war, disguised herself as a boy to feed her family, and ultimately had her dreams, her childhood, and her life taken away from her.

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