Naturally, the title immediately brings to mind the name of the world’s most infamous terrorist, but the movie has little to do with Osama bin Laden. He’s mentioned only once in order to supply further negative association with the Taliban. It’s not needed. Writer-director Siddiq Barmak does just fine vilifying them without bin Laden’s help. In Afghanistan’s first feature to be shot since the Taliban fell (though they are supposedly making a comeback), it’s payback time for Barmak. Alas the passion for payback doesn’t always mix with artistry, and there is little of that in Osama. Elia Suleiman didn’t quite get it right either dealing with the Israelis in Divine Intervention earlier this year, so maybe filmmakers should figure out better reasons for making movies than lashing out.
The Osama of the title refers to the identity a 12-year old girl (Marina Golbahari) adopts in order to work. Women aren’t allowed to do much more than breath under the Taliban, and with Osama’s father dead, only she can pass as a boy to raise money for her mother (Zubaida Sahar) and grandmother.
The movie opens with women in a demonstration march protesting their inability to work under Taliban rule. Taliban thugs arrive firing weapons into the air and hosing the women down. All of them are hooded and faceless save one young girl, the future Osama. Barmak isn’t subtle as he pulls the Potemkin trick of showing a baby in danger amidst the trampling crowd. The Taliban men follow up by clubbing the camera, itself standing in for the point of view of a Western journalist, implicitly attacking the viewer.
As a boy, Osama works for a man who was friendly with her late father. Timid and flighty, she has trouble assimilating as a boy. At every opportunity of exposure – learning male religious rites, bathing in a public space – Osama is ready to break. A beggar boy named Espandi (Arif Herati) knows her secret and playfully threatens to reveal it, but he hates the Taliban and comes to be her protector from the other boys who constantly tease her.
While the movie is based on a true story, the mere depiction of truth doesn’t necessarily make good drama. Osama focuses more on the relentless hardships and suffering than on the characters experiencing them. However accurate this cataloging of misery is, it offers little insight. No one can begrudge a filmmaker for lashing out at atrocities and injustice, but Barmak does it artlessly. His attempts at lyricism are forced. Osama plants her shorn hair in a flower pot and has occasional reveries of jumping rope, an overwrought metaphor for her lost innocence. Barmak needs to check out Come and See or Pather Panchali to see how to do this type of thing right.
Barmak does fashion some genuinely dramatic moments such as when Osama is chased by a mob that feels like all of society collapsing in on her. And to the film’s credit, unlike most drag acts in cinema, Golbahari really does pass for a boy rather convincingly. At times, Osama effectively transports audiences into its frightening, desolate world, something only movies can do so vividly.