Writer-director Siddiq Barmak's Osama--the first all-Afghan film to emerge since the fall of the Taliban--paints a visually striking and decidedly haunting mural of the Taliban's reign of terror. As such, this is the sort of film which unquestioningly deserves the adjective "important," but we can be especially glad that it also earns the adjective "great."
12-year-old Marina Golbahari (one in a wholly convincing amateur cast) plays a girl who must masquerade as a boy in order to win the freedom to go to work for her starving family. Renamed "Osama" by a sympathetic boy who's immediately wise to her, the girl finds her new "freedom" illusive. Still shrouded in mortal fear (though no longer a burka), she works for a brief time before swept off to bin Laden's Taliban training corps, where young boys' initiation into manhood includes sober lessons in genital sanitation and machine-weaponry. "Osama" can neither fathom nor convincingly feint the phallocentric lessons, and her sinking feeling is ours.
Many simple, lingering images evince Barmak's consummate eye. He begins the film by ostensibly looking through a journalist's video-camera eye as Taliban forces crack down on a sea of shrouded women gathered in protest. The frame fills with the water of the Taliban hoses, the same life-giving, cleansing water which endlessly surfaces as the found privilege of males. Soon thereafter, a heartbreakingly eloquent long shot observes a limping, swaying child teetering in the wake of Taliban disruption.
Barmak's film, though very visual, makes each line an incisive comment from a relevant perspective: the coiled-anger chant of the burka'd dissenters ("We are not political. We are hungry. Let us work"), the fearful guilt of a hospital administrator ("I can't do anything...For God's sake, leave me alone"), the plaintive cry of a wit's-end woman languishing in shadow ("I wish God hadn't created women!"), and the bedtime story of crossed genders which naively promises miraculous salvation just a rainbow away. Indeed, Barmak begins his film with a piquant comment, by Nelson Mandela: "I cannot forget, but I can forgive." Arriving at the bleak end of Osama, audiences will struggle to find a like answer of faithful peace to a challenge of nightmarish injustice.