Exploring the world through global cinema

Long Black Veil

The long journey begins with  ‘Osama’, a 2003 Afghan drama shot on location in Kabul, written and directed by Siddiq Barmak. Click below to view the official trailer:

Acts Of Desperation

‘Osama’ attempts to give a snapshot of life in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, focusing chiefly upon a young girl forced to disguise herself as a boy in order to put food on the table for her family, of whom all the male members have been killed. Women were forbidden to work under Taliban law, and the film makes clear the terror and hopelessness of a war-torn world held under an oppressive medieval, religious doctrine. Billed as the first Afghan film following the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, it is perhaps inevitable that they should be the subject. For the most part, I was entirely drawn into the bleak and unjust landscape of ‘Osama’, although the film is not without some faults, with certain key elements not adequately explored and an ending that for me did not entirely work.

The oppressive nature of the Taliban is fully-realised on screen.

Filmed on location in Kabul, ‘Osama’ needs do little to show the horrors of war – the evidence is all around and the locals are so used to it that many have never known anything different. The complete undermining of Afghan civilisation by the Taliban is omnipresent in every scene where they are not in frame. Their introduction is potently out of shot, highlighting the facelessness with which they are viewed. To an extent, it is a shame that their motives and background are never explored in any depth, sometimes reducing them to the level of fanatical religious boogeymen – propaganda-like in its execution, which has the unfortunate result of oversimplifying the film’s discourse. This is not a question of sympathy, but of avoiding demonisation and the same level of ignorance practiced by the overlords under scrutiny. Unless of course Barmak was suggesting that the Taliban’s two-dimensional nature is the sum-total of their being, which I don’t think was the case.

It is perfectly understandable, however – the treatment the Afghans received, the complete destruction of both their lives and any semblance of hope they may have had will naturally colour their opinions of their oppressors, in much the same way that the most rational of Holocaust survivors have simply been pushed to too horrible an extreme to even want to bother with objectivity. It could even be argued that a film delivering a message about extremism must be similarly one-sided in its presentation if the audience, far-removed, are even going to begin to appreciate the point being made. Coming halfway towards understanding the effect of sustained terror on the psyche is the furthest an outsider may manage. At the same time, however, the only way to defuse this hatred and prevent it from perpetuating endlessly throughout history is to avoid demonising the enemy. In the end, it may be the greatest struggle of all.

” ‘Osama’ needs do little to show the horrors of war – the evidence is all around and the locals are so used to it that many have never known anything different”

Marina Golbahari as 'Osama' goes beyond acting - she's clearly been there.

And importantly, the skewed approach does not undermine the film’s central aim: to portray the total subjugation of women, leading to a life of oppression, poverty and destitution, wherein there is no chance of escape. Central to this is the young girl herself, who at no time convinces in her attempts to hide her identity making the conclusion to her storyline inevitable. It’s entirely believable that this practice would have been perpetuated by a desperate people in a world where only men have any authority whatsoever, yet since the producers are keen to make it clear that women are the the greatest victims of Taliban rule, any such attempt is utterly impossible. The absolute terror and misery conveyed by Marina Golbahari as the title character is powerful and convincing, yet horrifying precisely because it is so. Obtaining his cast from the general public, director Siddiq Barmak has something of a mixed bag, with some performers unable to match their contemporaries, yet Golbahari is clearly not so much acting a lot of the time as reliving. ‘Osama’ simply would not be anywhere near as powerful and occasionally gut-wrenching as it is without her efforts.

“The absolute terror and misery conveyed by Marina Golbahari as the title character is powerful and convincing, yet horrifying precisely because it is so.”

The film’s ending took me back to the sheer hopelessness summed up in the climax to Joan Chen’s ‘Xiu Xiu’, depicting the forced relocation of youths during the Chinese Cultural revolution. Yet in ‘Osama’, I found the film’s closing to be somewhat abrupt and lacking. Apparently, Barmak did have an alternate ending in mind that he later felt would undermine the story’s theme. On the one hand, it could be argued that ongoing misery has no ending, yet it doesn’t change my feeling that the credits rolled too soon. This is ironic really, as I felt the film’s overall length was more than enough to get its message across, and ironic further still, considering that for the central characters, there is no ending to their suffering. Or it may be that I simply didn’t want to accept the final scene as an ending.

Destitute Afghan war widows are punished for staging a right-to-work rally.

However, ‘Osama’ does not fail to convey its message, not to mention at least some of the horrors suffered by the story’s victims, for I don’t think anyone on this side of the screen could ever truly understand unless they had seen it for themselves. Storywise, I felt it needed further development of certain elements and more thought into some of the editing, but its central aim to invoke feelings of disgust and despair at the destruction of lives in the aim of ignorance and fanaticism is firmly intact. If you’ve never seen an Afghan film before, this is not a bad place to start.

Coming up next on World On Film: the Albanian comedy, ‘Slogans’.


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