A country governed by the Taliban is not the best place to have wet dreams. If it happens, you are forced to perform ablutions decreed by them. We are shown these rituals in an extraordinary scene in Osama, the Afghan movie that won Best First Feature in Cannes and the Golden Globe for best foreign film. A stone bathhouse with almost naked adolescent boys; an elderly mullah, presumably naked, demonstrating the ritual: three pours on the right, three on the left, and three in the middle. Steam rising. The mullah says “Only Allah knows if you are left or right.”
Forty-one year old Saddiq Barmak wrote, directed, and edited this taut, unsentimental film. He escaped to Pakistan two weeks after the Taliban took over and banned him and his Afghan Film Organization. He returned to Kabul when the Taliban fell with a script about the devastating, dehumanizing effects the theocratic group had on the people.
“In Cannes, everyone was asking me if this is a documentary. Yes, I said, it is the reality.” Part of what he shows us is what happened to women under the Taliban. The film opens on a street demonstration by hundreds of women dressed in their faceless light blue burkas, marching and demonstrating for the right to work. The black-turbaned Taliban arrive with water trucks, hosing them down with the force of a waterfall. Some shoot into the crowd. A harrowing scene begins as they stampede: some are caught and thrown into trucks and jailed, some are trampled, children are lost and wailing; the street is a filthy mudslide. The cinematographer, Ebrahim Ghafuri, catches both the horror and the terrifying beauty of this mass of light blue gowns running through the ochre sunny city.
Osama, a 12-year old girl, and her mother manage to escape home safely, only to face starvation. Their men have been killed; they are not allowed to work; they cannot appear in public without a burka or a man. If even so much as an ankle is shown, they are jailed. Desperate, the mother and grandmother cut off Osama’s braids, dress her with some of the dead men’s clothes, and send her out to find work. In a lyrical touch, they plant the braids in a pot, watering them with an intravenous bottle snatched from the hospital where her mother used to work before the Taliban destroyed it.
Osama is terrified that she will be found out. Though many of the boys suspect she is a girl, the mullah says, his eyes lusting, “No, she is a nymph—a boy who looks like a girl in heaven.” For the moment, Osama is saved.
But Osama is eventually thrown into the dank jail with the other women who were arrested during the demonstration and justice, Taliban style, is meted out. First, a foreign journalist accused of spying is summarily shot. Next, a pit is dug to hold a woman accused of agitation and she is stoned to death as the crowd looks on. Osama’s turn is next. The ruling mullah, who dispenses capital punishment so casually, lies on his side on cushions fingering his prayer beads. Osama is brought before him. The elderly mullah of the sex education scene makes a sign to his superior, who coldly nods assent and the leering mullah grabs the girl, throwing her like chattel into the donkey cart, and takes her to his farm which imprisons his other wives and many children. As we see him plunging into his steamy bath before raping her, we wonder if stoning might not have been preferable.
A city of ruined and crumbling clay, Kabul is Osama’s setting. Barmak wanted to show life as it was under the Taliban, so he used a hand-held camera to emphasize a documentary style. He found his actors in refugee camps, orphanages, and the streets. He searched through 3,000 girls to find Osama, played by 12 year-old Marina Golbahari, who was an illiterate street beggar when he stumbled upon her. Much like the recent films City of God and Elephant, a good portion of the dialogue came from the actors, encouraged by Barmak to improvise, contributing to its authenticity and strength.
Given this oppressive material, Barmak has an unexpectedly clean, quick directorial touch. Shot mostly in duns and grays, the film is not heavy-handed and is short (82 minutes). There are even moments of humor. A wedding celebration with music and dancing (strictly forbidden) suddenly becomes a funeral as the lookout cries “The Taliban is coming!”
Barmak’s influences are the great Iranian directors, Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf (the cinematographer also shot Kandahar). Images of stark beauty linger after you see this film: a hospital destroyed by the Taliban, deserted except for a small lame boy hobbling down an arched corridor; a dead tree in the courtyard of the mahadras, the school where the young boys are rounded up and indoctrinated into Islamic law and the military. “Bin Laden is training us for war,” says one.
In addition to running the small Afghan Film Organization (India produces 3 films per day; Afghanistan has only averaged a film every 2.5 years), Barmak also runs the Afghan Children’s Education Movement, which tries to help with literacy and the arts. The Iranian director Makhmalbaf started the organization (funded by Unesco) and donated $45,000 worth of lab time to the production of Osama.
The 12 year-old star (now 14), illiterate when he found her in the streets, has now learned to read and, with her earnings, bought her family a mud house. Barmak says 6 million children are eager to go to school and that the dread and tension conveyed in Osama are gone. “While there is still extreme poverty, our people can laugh and smile again. My next film will show that,” he says.
See this beautiful film in spite of its sadness.
Osama * * * * * (of 5 stars)
GALEN WILLIAMS ran the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street YM-YWHA in the 1960s.