From Wanted Man to Golden Globe Winner; Siddiq Barmak Discusses "Osama"
by Howard Feinstein
He just won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language film, but Afghan director Siddiq Barmak had to pay his dues in spades in order to get there. He was a wanted man: Only 10 days after the Taliban seized control of his country in 1996, he fled Kabul through the Shamali plain to northern Afghanistan, continuing more than two years later to Pakistan. Returning in 2001 after the Taliban's collapse by an American-led invasion, he began preproduction on a film inspired by a letter from an old teacher that he had read in exile. Under the Taliban, a young girl eager to study had disguised herself as a boy in order to go to school. Barmak originally called his project "Rainbow," after a happy ending he later discarded. The title became "Osama," the girl's pseudonym. "Osama" played in the Director's Fortnight last May in Cannes, where United Artists bought it, then went on to collect loads of prizes at other festivals. (It comes to select U.S. theaters on Friday.)
Why did the Taliban try to arrest him for making movies? "They banned pictures and images because they wanted to hide their own identity," explains the affable, soft-spoken father of two. "If they had been identified, people would know who they were. Some had been extreme Communists from a pro-Soviet party (left over from the Soviet occupation, which ended in 1989); some were notorious in other ways. They were supported by some neighboring countries, especially Pakistan which, he notes, still supports members of both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. They were very much afraid of motion pictures. To justify themselves, they used the religious concept that images were not allowed by God or the Messenger of God." Barmak is also an ethnic Tajik, whose first language is Dari; the Taliban were primarily Pashto who spoke Pashto.
Barmak, who had wanted to be a projectionist when he was a boy, made this first feature with a cast of nonprofessionals. Most he found in a refugee camp and a home for street children, but he discovered his protagonist, 12-year-old Marina Golbahari, on the street when she approached him for spare change. "Osama" does not look like it was filmed in a country decimated by war: It is fluid, well edited, and beautifully shot (by Ebrahim Ghafuri, Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf's regular cinematographer).
The film has a deceptively complex structure. It begins with a feisty young boy, Espandi (Arif Herati), hustling some unseen figure behind a video camera. This does not turn out to be a film within a film, as one expects. The camera belongs to a foreign journalist who appears only later in the film, a victim of the Taliban. The puzzle gradually comes together. That journalist had been en route to photograph women in blue burqas marching for the right to work. The Taliban repels them with water hoses.
This sets the stage for a later plot point: The young girl's widowed mother, not allowed to take a job, cannot support her daughter and her own aged mother. In spite of great danger, she dresses her daughter like a boy and sends her to work in a shop owned by a friend. She is corralled by Taliban police and sent to a madrassa, where only the protective Espandi knows her real identity, even covering for her when the teacher becomes suspicious. Her ultimate fate, which involves an old mullah, is not a pleasant one. It's not surprising that Barmak plans for his next project to be a comedy, "even a black comedy," based on the writings of an Afghan friend now living in Denmark.
Barmak says he wanted to address the plight of women not only under the Taliban but in Afghan culture generally. "It is really hopeless for women," he says. "They are the low caste. It's all from old religions and eastern traditions, even before Islam."
Before the Taliban came to power, Barmak, who is now 41, had been the head of Afghan Film, the national entity for production and archiving. (This jack-of-all-trades once served as an aide to the slain anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban leader Ahmed Shah Massoud.) Now he has resumed that position. His own earlier shorts were confiscated during his exile (most had already been banned by the Soviets), but he is optimistic about the future. "We are copying all of our remaining films. We now have good technical equipment, given by the French, to transfer to digital," he says.
Asked about the American presence in his country, Barmak attempts to summarize a complex situation. "Our people were tired of Taliban fascism. We were ready to welcome any other regime. Even now, Americans are considered saviors. But this feeling is declining. We were waiting to be saved, but we were also awaiting help to clean up destruction left over from all of our wars.
"The problem is that we have no oil. But we do occupy a good strategic position," Barmak continues. "If our American friends remain indifferent to the fate of the country, that could give an opportunity to other nations that show interest. That would be very bad for the U.S. Our American friends just do not understand that a few drops of Afghan blood are worth a million barrels of oil."