'Osama' a portrait of fear

The Sacramento BeeMay 6, 2004 

Americans have it so easy that we get to indulge in luxuriant outrage over something as silly -- and relatively harmless -- as the recent Janet Jackson "scandal." If only the people of some Third World countries, whose problems are real and critical and acute, had a tool as convenient as the FCC to follow up on complaints of offenses against them.

I had the good fortune to see "Osama" -- the powerful film from Afghanistan, the first made there since the fall of the Taliban -- in the wake of Jackson's nation-shocking action. And, believe me, this humbling, angry film gave me a much-needed reality check.

"Osama" catapults us into a ruthlessly transgressive world where women have no latitude whatsoever. Forget about bearing a breast. In this culture, women are expected to remain inside and out of sight. They are permitted freedom of movement outdoors only with the accompaniment of a man and, even then, their clothing is their prison.

Siddiq Barmak, who was born in Afghanistan and studied filmmaking at Russia's Moscow University, makes an auspicious feature-film debut with this stark, relatively simple tale that's based on a true story. Modeling his movie after Italy's postwar neo-realist dramas, Barmak pulls us into his film early on with a threatening shot of a soldier coming at the camera -- and, by extension, at us - ready to bludgeon it (and us). Immediately, we are made empathetic with the victims in his film. They are the Afghan women who are being blasted with water cannons for asking for the right to work.

We're in 1996 Kabul and are soon introduced to a nameless little girl (played by Marina Golbahari, who is not a professional actress). Not giving the girl a name seems to be Barmak's sly commentary on the daily humiliation and dehumanizing she experiences. The girl lives with her mother (Zubaida Sahar) and grandmother (Hamida Refah) in a household without men.

Both her father and brother are gone, which makes life impossible for this matriarchy. In order to buy food, they need to work. But the Catch-22 of the situation is that they can't leave the house to work or buy food - because they're women. They are likely to starve to death. You could say that they are at the mercy of society, but they are actually at the mercy of no one because, frankly, no one cares.

The only recourse is to disguise the young girl as a boy and send her out to earn money. She takes the name of Osama and gets a job in a shop.

But it's not as easy as it sounds. This is no "Yentl." The child lives in constant fear of being exposed. She could die for this infraction. Matters tense up even more when she is taken off her job and forced into military training, and the Taliban mind-set, at a school for boys.

This child's life, even as a boy, is punishing, and Barmak unflinchingly captures her every fear in this most affecting film.

The sadistic, heartless cruelty of the fundamentalist Islamic militia reaches a fevered pitch when Osama is punished by being suspended over a well -- a scene shot by Barmak and his cinematographer, Ebrahim Ghafuri, from the bottom of the well, making us witness the excruciating sight of the child's dangling body and listen to her pained murmurs and cries.

For some reason, the accomplished "Osama" was not nominated for an Oscar. But it was accorded a special prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival and won the foreign-language award at this year's Golden Globes, where Barmak expressed his gratitude in a modest but memorable way.

"Osama" is bracingly edifying. It makes you think -- about the notion of oppression. Rather, it forces you to think about it. The Taliban's unspeakable treatment of women and girls was ostensibly out of respect for them -- to protect them. Ironically, the critics of the Jackson incident said approximately the same thing.

There's something strangely discomforting about this.

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