erasing clouds

On misogyny and women's oppression: watching Siddiq Barmak's film Osama

by anna battista

They say political and financial crisis can create wonderful art: paintings, writings, even movies, are often created in countries where there are difficult political situations, where human beings are oppressed and their rights are denied. At least this is the case with the Afghan film Osama, by director Siddiq Barmak.

Barmak's film recently won the Golden Globe Award for best foreign language film and was acclaimed at film festivals around the world, Cannes among the others. Set in the ruined Kabul around 1996, during the Taliban regime, the film is a very good example of art created in a country which in its history suffered the consequences of different crisis and different regimes. Osama, for its realistic and sometimes surreal atmosphere, recalls movies such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Kandahar (2001) and Samira Makhmalbaf's Blackboards (2000) and At Five in the Afternoon (2003). The Makhmalbaf production company has actually been involved in the movie and Barmak and director Mohsen Makhmalbaf themselves have also been working on the Afghan Children Education Movement, an association which aims to improve literacy and promote the arts in the country. Film-makers started being interested again in Afghanistan after cinemas reopened in the country (they were closed for five years, until 2001, during the Taliban regime): film-makers are now going back to the country and even Bollywood producers are returning to Afghanistan to shoot films there.

There are no terrorists and no real Osama bin Laden in Barmak's film. Indeed, Osama is the story of a woman (Zubaida Sahar) who, having lost her husband and brother, decides to disguise her daughter (Marina Golbahari) as a boy and to send her to work. Under the Taliban regime women couldn't work or be seen in public without any man accompanying them and, when accompanied, had to wear the burka. Once disguised as a boy named Osama, the girl starts working in a shop which belongs to a friend of his dead father, but troubles arrive when she is later enrolled in a madrassah school and will really have to struggle to keep her secret.

Director Siddiq Barmak, who wrote and produced the film, deliberately chose non-professional actors for his movie: the part of the boy Osama is beautifully played by Marina Golbahari, whom the director met when he went back to Afghanistan after his exile, while she was begging in the streets.

Based on a true story, Osama is filmed in a sort of documentary-like style and includes some great shots: when the film opens we meet a boy called Espandi (Arif Herati) begging, the camera follows him and after a while it starts filming a group of widows, all wrapped up in blue burkas, their sexuality denied according to the rules of the Taliban regime, marching and asking for their right to work. But their protest ends up in chaos when Taliban members arrive and open fire and hoses over the women, arresting some of them. Another crucial scene that makes the viewer understand how obsessively women's sexuality was denied under the Taliban regime is when Osama's mother gets a ride back home on a bicycle: the woman is rebuked for showing her bare feet in public because this action could excite men. More touching scenes follow when Taliban members arrive in the hospital where the widow and her daughter are clandestinely working and the female nurses run away, leaving behind a boy with a heavy limp or again when Osama plants one of here pigtail in a flower pot, hoping the hair will grow. In the film Barmak uses a very simple and basic technique to show the viewer Osama's longing for freedom: whenever she feels trapped in a world she doesn't like, working at the dairy shop or suffering in jail, Osama dreams she's playing one of her favourite games, jumping rope.

Siddiq Barmak's Osama is a tragic and harsh, sometimes ironic (note the scene in the madrassah when the boys are taught to attend to their ablutions), but beautiful and touching film about misogyny, women's repression and extremely oppressive religious rules ("I wish God hadn't created women," Osama's mother will say at some point in the film). In the world narrated by Barmak's film, women are stoned to death if they disobey or they end up in getting married to a mullah against their will.

The film opens with Nelson Mandela's words, "I can't forget, but I will forgive", but while watching it we discover that forgetting and forgiving are very difficult things to do, especially in a country in which too many wars, bullets and regimes left too many physical and psychological scars.

Issue 20, February 2004

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