Please, not the burka

The Sophia Loren-eyed Marina Golbahari in Osama, not looking happy in this year’s Taliban-approved collection.

The Sophia Loren-eyed Marina Golbahari in Osama, not looking happy in this year’s Taliban-approved collection.

Rated 4.0

Afghanistan’s first major film since the fall of the Taliban, Osama is a sad, harrowing look at an oppressed society in which women basically are held prisoner in their own country in the names of God and common decency. They are not allowed to venture outside their homes without a male escort and, as depicted here by writer-director-editor Siddiq Barmak, are subjected to constant institutionalized humiliation, cruelty and restrictions.

The Osama of the title is not the fugitive Osama Bin Laden, as one readily may surmise, but rather a pre-teen girl (Marina Golbahari, as a facially scarred cherub with young Sophia Loren eyes) who lives with her mother and grandmother in a household with no males. The women cower inside, starving and fearing intrusion by Taliban thugs. The child’s mother loses her clandestine job at a hospital, and the female trinity is forced to rely on the generosity of friends and relatives to survive.

Life is so bleak, and misery is layered so thick, that the grandmother wishes that God had not created women. She suggests that her granddaughter cut her hair, dress like a boy and find work so they will not starve. The ploy is dangerous. The girl probably would be killed if she were discovered masquerading as a man. A neighborhood boy immediately recognizes her but gives her the name Osama to protect her from the taunts and attacks of other young males who grow to suspect her gender. As the youths make their way through religious and military training, the girl grows more and more afraid of being exposed and facing the whims of a Taliban judge not known for mercy.

Barmak’s story is a simple, spare tapestry of suffering and injustice. He mixes urgent handheld-camera sequences with patches of quiet, dramatic eloquence. At one point, we wade into a sea of female demonstrators draped in soft blue burkas and feel both their desperation (“We want to work,” read their signs. “We are not political. We are hungry. Give us work. We are widows.”) and their fear, as the Taliban arrives with water cannons, gunning and herding some of the women into crowded cages. In another scene, we watch a crippled kid limp down a hospital hallway as a flock of people he trails leaves him farther and farther behind and disappears around a corner.

The powerful, lingering images here are many. We are escorted into the bathhouse, where an elder vividly talks to his pupils about wet dreams and instructs them in how to wash their genitals without removing their garments. A man is chastised for allowing a woman to expose her feet while riding on the back of his bicycle. “You bastard,” says a Taliban pedestrian, using the apparent favorite curse du jour. “Men will be aroused.” A celebration immediately is disguised as a funeral when Taliban enforcers appear. And Osama, in a deeply sullen mood, slowly etches the figure of a long-haired girl in the moisture on the inside of a glass window.

The film is laced with strands of local music but, for the most part, uses silence and inherently natural sounds for pseudo-documentary effect. It slithers through a world populated by war widows from what are referred to as the Russian and Kabul wars. It tells of people strapped to interminable poverty who must look within themselves for peace and solace. And the dreamlike scenes of Osama jumping rope in what may be transitory jail cells permeate the film with an unshakable ache.

Osama’s grandmother shares a folk tale in which a boy wishes to become a girl so he doesn’t have to work under the country’s harsh physical conditions. He has only to pass under a rainbow for his wish to come true. It is an example of the grass-is-always-greener syndrome that gives the Afghan females a brief moment of hope that they, too, can change sexes in the same way and leave their ruined youth and adult lives behind.

The film begins with a Nelson Mandela quote: “I cannot forget, but I can forgive.” But the bitterness is, indeed, a hard pill to digest. At least one woman in the story does not agree: “May hell swallow the Taliban,” she says. And life goes on.