Judge Dan Mancini was disappointed to learn this Afghan film wasn't about crocheted blankets.
We are not political. We are hungry. Give us work.
Skillfully shot by cinematographer Ebrahim Ghafori, 2003's Osama looks and feels very much like a product of the Mohsen Makmalbaf school of filmmaking. In addition to directing the critically-acclaimed Cannes Jury Prize-winning Kandahar (2001), the Iranian Makmalbaf produced and co-wrote his daughter Samira's two films, The Apple (1998) and Blackboards (2000). Ghafori is a frequent Makmalbaf collaborator who lensed each of the aforementioned pictures, and his visual style, coupled with Osama's focus on the plight of women in the Arab world, gives the film the flavor of a Makmalbaf brainchild, though the current Poobah of Middle Eastern cinema didn't participate in its writing or production.
Written, directed, produced, and edited by Siddiq Barmak, Osama was marketed internationally as the first Afghan film produced after the Taliban was pushed out of power (a significant detail since the fanatic Mullahs didn't allow their citizens to watch movies, let alone make them). The story concerns a 13-year-old girl (Marina Golbahari), struggling to survive with her mother and grandmother on the dangerous, poverty-ridden streets of Kabul. The girl's mother (Zubaida Sahar) is a doctor forbidden to practice medicine by Taliban fascism. The three women face starvation because they have no man to support them, the girl's father having been killed in the Kabul war, and uncle in the Soviet war. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so the women cut the girl's hair, dress her as a boy, rename her Osama, and arrange for her to be employed at a shop owned by a friend. Osama's situation becomes considerably more dangerous, however, when she's conscripted by a Taliban Mullah to study the Koran and combat tactics with other boys in the city.
Like much of today's Middle Eastern cinema, Osama is heavily influenced by European film movements like the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism. Barmak opens his film from the camera perspective of a Western journalist interviewing an urchin on the streets of Kabul. The scene not only proves a clever and powerful framing device for the picture's main narrative, but its cinéma vérité visual style hangs with us psychologically through the rest of the film even as Barmak and Ghafori transition into more traditional camera setups. Barmak keeps his story so simple and grounded in character, it all feels like a documentary. Osama is, of course, a political film, but its moral authority is rooted in its deep focus on its actors' humanity as opposed to rhetorical flourishes. Condemnation of fascism isn't particularly revelatory as a political statement, but Barmak crafts a deeply compelling film by revealing the subtle details of life under the Taliban. Instead of caricatures of virtue and villainy, we're presented a broad spectrum of humanity. One of the film's delightfully subversive surprises is the degree to which Kabul's residents—both men and women—collude with one another to bypass Taliban strictures. Employing Osama is a terrific act of charity and loyalty by the shopkeeper who was once a friend of her father. He's also risking his own neck since he knows the boy is really a girl, yet he accepts the danger with surprisingly little arm-twisting from Osama's mother. Indeed, most of the film's non-Taliban characters function with the same seemingly contradictory mix of self-interest and duty-bound loyalty to one another we associate with inmates in a prison flick. One easily buys it as an accurate depiction of life under a totalitarian regime.
As in the European traditions that inspired him, Barmak utilizes non-professional actors to tell his tale. The role of Osama has an emotional range that requires subtle use of face, eyes, and voice, and Marina Golbahari is entirely convincing. Also compelling is Arif Herati as Espandi, the urchin interviewed by the Western journalist at film's beginning. The movie hits its dramatic and thematic stride when Espandi discovers Osama's secret but protects her even as the Mullahs and other boys at the training camp grow increasingly suspicious of her obvious effeminacy. That final act of the film is thick with old fashioned, nail-biting suspense, while also exposing and examining the Taliban's deep-seated fear of female sexual power in an under-the-radar sort of way that eschews symbolism or conceptual abstractions. The humanity of Golbahari and Herati carries the film's themes, ideas, and politics so convincingly one feels entirely engrossed by the story rather than lectured at or cajoled to accept a political position. The actors' stirring authenticity undoubtedly results from their having actually lived under the oppression of the Mullahs, and it makes Osama that rarest of flowers: a simple, powerful story well told.
MGM's DVD offers a fine anamorphic widescreen image that is clean, mostly sharp, and provides stunning reproduction of color. Aside from a tiny bit of edge enhancement haloing and the fact the English subtitles are burned in, there's not much to complain about on the video front. Audio is two-channel mono, reproducing the low-budget source with excellent clarity. The track is clean and crisp with a surprising amount of dynamic range.
Extras are limited to a 22-minute interview, conducted in English, in which Barmak discusses the film's origins and production, and a theatrical trailer. It's not the most impressive package, but the film itself is worth the price of admission.
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Scales of Justice
• "Sharing Hope and Freedom: Siddiq Barmak Interview" Featurette
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