The Trouble with the Taliban; Siddiq Barmak’s “Osama”
by Peter Brunette
“Osama,” the first Afghani feature-length film made since the fall of the Taliban, is a film you want very much to like, and many do. It’s an incredibly simple tale, more a series of horrifying tableaux than a fully-formed narrative, about a young girl who, driven to starvation by the Taliban who refuse to allow her widowed mother to work, is forced to pass herself off as a boy. As you might imagine, this act of desperation is not one that can be sustained long-term.
Not surprisingly, the Taliban does not come out looking very good in this film, which is obviously a product of a great deal of richly-merited bitterness. A title at the beginning, attributed to Nelson Mandela, puts it boldly: “I can forgive, but I cannot forget.” But while director Siddiq Barmak‘s critique is a powerful one, his anger all too often takes the form of didacticism, and it is this perhaps understandable but unfortunate choice that will distance most viewers from a full emotional experience with “Osama.”
The daily humiliations effected under Taliban rule are chillingly catalogued. For women, every moment of the day must be planned out in advance so that they can always be accompanied by a male member of their family in order to avoid a censure that often takes a physical form. A joyous wedding (even if the groom is in exile in Iran!) has to be instantly disguised as a funeral when the Taliban approaches.
Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the film is another aspect that, paradoxically, limits its success. I’m referring to the director’s panopoly of cinematic techniques which enliven and deepen — aesthetically, at least — this utterly minimalist story. In the very beginning, for example, an unseen filmmaker forks over dollar bills to one of the hustling kids, Espandi, who later shows sympathy to Osama. With this gesture, director Siddiq Barmak is taking his place among a long list of modernist directors beginning with Jean-Luc Godard and continuing down to the great Iranian master, Abbas Kiarostami, who was obviously a great influence on Barmak.
This self-reflexive moment doesn’t last long, but it sets the rigorous aesthetic tone of the film, a tone which clashes, alas, with Barmak’s insistence on our outrage. It’s followed by a you-are-there, quite exciting hand-held filming of a blue-burka-clad widows’ demonstration that is broken up by the Taliban. Switching gears again, Barmak settles on a quiet, even stately style that favors an almost descriptive or pedagogical approach, which, while enormously illuminating about the perversions that can stem from religious fanaticism, also tends to lessen the film’s emotional intensity. When viewers sense that they are being shown something to make a point, rather than to establish character or advance the action, it’s an immediate turn-off and can even impede the identification necessary to every fiction.
Other, more self-consciously literary/visual moments supply an ambivalent weight to the film, as for example, when a crippled child brings up the rear of a small group of people moving through a hospital that has run out of medical supplies, and Barmak holds the camera on him for what seems an eternity. Again, you feel like you must sympathize, yet you also feel manipulated. Much more successful — precisely because its meaning is more indefinite — is the haunting image of the girl skipping rope, which occurs several times near the end of the film.
Most people are obviously going to be sympathetic to a young girl who is so badly used from beginning to end. Again, though, since we never see her having even one scintilla of something nice happening to her, ironically, it’s harder, again, to actively identify. Nobody likes to feel miserable all the time, especially paying audiences.
The remainder of the film is a further catalogue of the troubles this young girl faces, from the boys who refuse to believe she’s a girl and torment her (leading to the eventual nude scene — which we’ve also seen in movies about young Jews pretending to be gentiles during the Holocaust) to the hypocritical holy mullahs who preach spirituality but have something decidedly more earthly in mind for the girl.
We already know most of these things about the Taliban, of course, but it’s good to see them listed once again. It just doesn’t always make for the most involving drama.