A crashing sea of blue burkas, their occupants running in terror as shots ring out from unseen gunners, is the first of many shockingly beautiful shots in Siddiq Barmak’s “Osama,” which opened in New York two weeks ago. But aside from the striking visuals, can the first post-liberation film by an Afghani director about the evils of the Taliban really be evaluated truthfully? Can it be separated from the politics surrounding it? Examining the film solely as a piece of art leaves only a weak familiar story that is hard to empathize with, but “Osama” should be still be heralded as both a political milestone and as a triumph of spirit. Governed by politics and popular opinion, the film world has quickly embraced it; the Golden Globes have crowned “Osama” Best Foreign Film, and it is already a front runner for next year’s Academy Awards. In an attempt to both ignore the hype and to embrace it, we should examine both artistic and political aspects of the film. But in the end, we still emerge with a united verdict.
Barmak begins his film as if it were a documentary following a young street urchin into a political demonstration. While this approach was obviously intended to be gripping, it backfires because it isn’t pulled off correctly. The camera work is too polished and the dialogue too rehearsed for a documentary. At one point Barmak even uses slow-motion with splashing water all around the camera, yet the camera doesn’t get wet. By beginning his film with an unintended “lie,” Barmak puts the rest of the film into jeopardy; he distances his audience from the atrocities that he is trying to convey.
After this misguided beginning the film gets better, but there still retains an aura of artificiality that is difficult to shake. Much of this is due to the simplistic plot that is so clearly going to end in tragedy for the lead, a young girl (Marina Golbahari), that it is too painful to empathize with her. The film follows the girl, who is forced to pretend to be a boy to survive and ends up as a recruit in bin Laden’s terrorist army. To Barmak’s credit, he manages to counteract almost all the sentimentality seemingly inseparable from such a story and at times — as when the appearance of the Taliban at a wedding causes the guests to protectively morph into sheet covered mourners — a bitter blend of dark humor even surfaces.
Marina does a fine job of inspiring respect as opposed to sympathy, speaking volumes with her eyes while the rest of her body is bound by restrictions. Her confusion about the loss of her feminine identity and sadness at her mother’s conditioned indifference are played out in a frighteningly realistic manner, suggesting other depths that the film sadly doesn’t explore.
From an elegant slippered foot resting against a spinning bike wheel to a limping boy clothed in blue in an empty hospital corridor, shot after shot goes off like a gun. While the script may be too simplistic, every one of Ebrahim Ghafuri’s frames conveys crumbling futility, the torture of a fundamentalist regime. It is possible that the film would almost be better as a photography show, with the frames frozen for viewing.
Time to move on to the dessert course: politics. The road to the making of “Osama” was long and arduous for everyone involved. Barmak’s first attempt to make a feature film in 1990 ended in disaster, including a snowy mountain trek to Pakistan to obtain funding in which the only thing accomplished was the near death of both him and his associates. Twelve years later, after fighting in the resistance, he was given a second chance with “Osama.” Funded by the Iranian director Mohsen Makmalbaf, the film was made for only $21,000 with an amateur cast. It has been received with open arms by the citizens of Afghanistan and the current government, which marks a real milestone on the country’s journey to freedom. In effect, Barmak built his movie from the ground up.
All of these factors undeniably elevate the film to a level beyond must-see, to the level of an essential cultural experience. The sophistication of Barmak’s approach, his even-handedness in dealing with a subject that made up his life for so long, shows a firm belief in growth and poetry, not rage. If a proper mind-set can be reached, if Barmak’s film is examined solely from the perspective of a docudrama, it is well worth seeing. There is more than enough content to interest anyone and while the film isn’t wholly original when compared to other works, the political setting is. In short, “Osama” unites politics and art in an exciting example of cinematic rebirth from the ashes of culture.
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