March, 2004, Drama

Directed by:Siddiq Barmak

Starring:Marina Golbahari, Arif Herati, Zubaida Sahar, Khwaja Nader

  Lots of movies try to make you laugh, others seek to scare the hell out of you, more still try to tug at an audience's heartstrings. Few however, consciously try to elicit anguish; (only last year's Lilya 4 Ever fits that category in the last few years) but now an Iranian director named Siddiq Barmak has created this mesmerizing story of the Taliban's oppression of Afghan women in the early days of their control of that sadly war-torn country. Employing a cast consisting largely of amateur actors, Barmak, working from his own script, tells the story of a 12 year-old girl who masquerades as a boy in order to find a job support her widowed mother and grandmother. Under Taliban rules of course, women aren't allowed to be seen, unescorted, out of their homes; despite the fact that Osama's father died fighting the Russians occupying Afghanistan alongside the Taliban, her mother, Espani, is forbidden to work. With full knowledge of the dangers involved, Espani disguises Osama and arranges a covert job for her in the rudimentary coffee shop run by a man who served with Osama's father during the war.  

Barmak's script focuses on the simplest of daily tasks; shopping for food, getting to and from Osama's job, gathering fuel for the fire that provides minimal warmth for their improvised home. Although she's trained as a physician Espani is forbidden to practice at the local hospital and must employ elaborate ruses in order to tend her patients. When the grown son of one elderly client gives her a ride home on the back of his bicycle, she must pose as his wife and still incur the wrath of a Taliban official who berates her supposed husband for allowing Espani's uncovered feet to be seen as she perches precariously over the back tire of his bike. 

Osama's tenuous grip on employment is destroyed when a Taliban customer at the shop where she's working insists she be trained along with the other boys in the village. Climbing trees, lowering her voice at prayer and struggling with the suspicions of the youths who surround her, Osama's ruse is inevitably discovered. She's brought before the local imam for sentencing, where she avoids the death penalty only because an elderly Taliban supporter agrees to take her to his farm and make her his fourth wife…

Barmak's camera is never overly busy; his images of village life are presented in a pared-back cinematographic style, due perhaps to budgetary as well as aesthetic considerations. But his eye is poetic; Espani's sandal-shod feet highlighted by the spokes of a bicycle tire, the swirls of thick coffee that Osama stirs incessantly at her work, the gaping hole into which a woman is to be thrust for stoning, a denuded tree, pressed into service as a school's jungle gym, shot from angles which suggest a symbolism with which any Christian could identify. Yet Barmak's greatest accomplishment lies in his depiction of individual Taliban--he gives his audience men who aren't inherently evil, but staggeringly rigid automatons who do evil out of blind adherence to religious orthodoxy. Fundamentalism has never been presented with such understanding--or more damning judgment. As Osama is prepared for her wedding night by the other wives of her aged fiancé, you can only draw one conclusion: she's been given a life sentence for the crime of being female in a claustrophobic world of male dominance so absolute it borders on the surreal.

At 82 minutes, this little gem ought to be seen by everyone in the West seeking to grasp what life was like during the Taliban's reign. 

The Verdict? Powerful, riveting and endlessly sad.

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