Dir: Siddiq Barmak. Afghanistan, Japan, Ireland. 2003. 82 mins.
The striking title is not the only virtue of this harrowing slice of cinema, which is the first feature film shot in Afghanistan by an Afghan director since the fall of the Taliban. In a hundred years of cinema-producing history, Afghanistan has managed an average of one film every two-and-a-half years, compared to India's current rate of three films per day. So the fact that Osama was produced at all is already cause for celebration. That it should turn out to be a emotionally-charged tragic parable with fine, limpid camerawork and believable performances from a non-professional cast of locals, is a definite bonus. Given the bravura result and the West's eagerness to embrace the anti-Taliban message, this should be an easy sell internationally, and may even approach the breakout appeal of a film like Voyage To Kandahar at the more commercial edge of the arthouse circuit.
Barmak owes a debt to Iranian cinema, which is part artistic (the influence of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami comes through loud and clear in Osama, not least because Barmak's Iranian DoP Ebrahim Ghafuri shot both Kandahar and The Day I Became A Woman) and part financial. The film was edited in Tehran, and both the Iranian Ministry of Culture and the Makhmalbaf Film House have donated money, equipment and training to Barmak and other Afghan filmmakers.
Osama opens with Espandi, a beggar boy, importuning the cameraman who is trying to film a demonstration being held by Afghani women in Kabul in the early years of the Taliban regime. He talks directly into the camera, and we immediately suspect a Kiarostami-style exercise in filmic self-consciousness; but this is the only such moment in the film, and is later justified by a small but neat plot detail later on, when a foreign cameraman is hauled up before a religious court for unauthorised filming. From a doorway, a pre-adolescent girl watches horrified as the Taliban turn water cannons on the women, round them up and herd them into cages. This nightmare vision - a swirl of blue burkhas in a confusion of spray and shouting - is a prelude of the horrors to come.
When the girl's mother is barred from working at a local hospital, she accepts, in a moment of cash-strapped desperation, her own mother's suggestion that her daughter should have her hair cut short and pass herself off as a boy, so she can go out and earn some money. But after the briefest of working careers, the little gamine in disguise is rounded up by the Taliban and sent off to Koranic school with all the other boys of her age. Here she meets up with the street-smart Espandi, the only one who knows her secret; though he had once threatened to blackmail her, he now takes her side against the other boys (who consider the new recruit to be girlish) and gives her the name Osama - a common Arab name, but one that we can be sure has not been chosen at random.
From here on in, although 'Osama' initially manages to conceal her secret in a tense series of trials, things go from bad to worse: as in Jafar Panahi's Venice festival winner The Circle, there is no escape from the brutal repression to which women are subjected - something which was even worse under the Taliban than in Panahi's Iran. Marina Golbahari, who was picked off the street by the director, gives a searingly moving performance as Osama. And Ghafuri's photography ups the emotional stakes by finding beauty in the poorest houses and the most desperate situations, dwelling on those small, ritualistic movements that bring comfort, and on strips of light inside a barred shop, or the dark, mottled calm of the school bath-house.
Prod co: Barmak Film (Afg)
Co prod: NHK (Jap), leBrocquy Fraser Ltd (Ire)
Int'l sales: Swipe Films
Prods: Siddiq Barmak, Julie leBrocquy, Julia Fraser
Scr: Siddiq Barmak
Cinematography: Ebrahim Ghafuri
Prod des: Akbar Meshkini
Ed: Siddiq Barmak
Music: Mohammed Reza Darwishi
Main cast: Marina Golbahari, Khwaja Nader, Arif Herati, Zubaida Sahar, Hamida Refah, Gol Rahman Ghorbandi