directed by Siddiq Barmak
(MGM, 2003)

As the veiled women march through narrow streets, chanting their demands that they be allowed to work outside the home, there suddenly comes the roar of engines and the first panicked cries.

The Taliban are coming.

Chants become screams, gunfire and the sounds of water hoses fill the air as women scatter, their blue burqas turning from an organized sea into a tumult of mass confusion, children tumbling from their mothers' arms as the Taliban round up the agitators and cart them off to prison.

Welcome to Afghanistan.

Under the uncanny gift of writer-director Siddiq Barmak, Afghanistan has given us Osama, the first film produced in that country since the fall of the fundamentalist Taliban rulers. And what a film it is. Unforgettable images, shattering, keening voices and the remarkable skills of a novice cast make Osama a film like little else out there today.

And no, it's not about that Osama. Osama in this case is a young girl on the cusp of puberty. Her mother, forbidden under the Taliban to work at the hospital despite the fact that she's a widow with a mother and child to support, is desperate. If she cannot work, and the Taliban forbid women to walk the streets unescorted by a male relative, what are they to do for food?

There is, in this corner of the world closed to women, only one option. Osama will have to become a boy. And, as a boy, she will have to go out into the world and find work.

As Osama sleeps through a nightmare, soothed by her grandmother, her hair is shorn, her body dressed in her dead father's clothing. She falls asleep a girl, she awakens a boy. It is a risky proposition. If she's discovered, the punishment is death.

Marina Golbahari was just a young girl walking on a street in Kabul when Barmak spied her and brought her on to play Osama in her first acting role. And it's her transparency, her apparent and utter terror, that gives Osama an unrelenting tension. She and the rest of the cast, with caution and "technique" thrown to the wind, are nothing short of amazing.

Osama is full of nightmarish, foreboding scenes of power run amok, but it's the sounds, too, that will catch your breath: the hush of scissors cutting off Osama's braids as she sleeps, the padding of a disabled child's feet as he stumbles down the hospital's hallway, abandoned in a rush to evacuate.

"I wish God hadn't created women," says Osama's despairing mother. And who can blame her, in a world where a husband's "gift" to his new wife is allowing her to choose the padlock that will seal her inside his house forever.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 6 November 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.