An Army of One

Starting over: Writer-director Siddiq Barmak (seated at left) on the set of 'Osama'
United Artists

An award winner at Cannes, the recipient of a Golden Globe, and, most recently, the subject of two feature articles in the New York Times, Siddiq Barmak's Osama arrives this week top-heavy with critical praise and solemn cultural importance. Here's a movie for which the word harrowing seems to have been expressly created. Promoted by its distributor, United Artists, as "the first entirely Afghan film to be shot since the rise of the Taliban," Osama has acquired a Third World saintliness--the cinematic equivalent of a Sally Struthers kid for whom only two reactions seem possible: head-shaking disbelief and head-shaking admiration.

And yet political sanctimony couldn't have been farther from Barmak's mind when he set out to tell the story of a 12-year-old girl (Marina Golbahari) who disguises herself as a boy in order to find work in Taliban-controlled Kabul. Osama is ultimately the story of how the heroine's developing body keeps threatening to betray her. Indeed, the movie could just as well be called The Day I Became a Woman, since its climactic moment arrives with the nameless heroine's inaugural menstruation--a thin trickle of blood that unequivocally gives away her gender. As far as first-period scenes go, it ranks right up there with Sissy Spacek's shower trauma in Carrie.

"It's a combination of true stories," says the 41-year-old writer-director of Osama's screenplay. "A lot of them were told to me by my friends who stayed on in Kabul and wrote to me in Peshawar," where Barmak lived in exile during the Taliban's reign. Among the more bizarre stories was in a letter he received from a friend who was working for the Taliban's radio propaganda agency. "He said that every day for two hours, a mullah went on the air to teach us how to wash our bodies and how to have good sexual relations," Barmak says. "This one lesson was repeated for two years. I thought, 'It's probably good entertainment, but these must be crazy people to teach the same lesson so many times.'"

This anecdote eventually became the basis of Osama's most unsettling passage--a bathhouse sequence in which an elderly mullah instructs his pubescent students in the art of washing themselves, particularly their testicles. Nightmarishly surreal, the scene unfolds in trancelike slow motion as a horrified Golbahari (who has been forcibly recruited into the Madrasah) crouches in a corner and tries desperately to conceal her body. The horny codger eventually becomes aroused by his androgynous pupil, initiating a hellish free-fall for the already powerless heroine.

Much of Osama's low-key horror derives from its demagogic namesake, who, while never seen or directly referenced, provides a source of off-screen menace as well as an unlikely alias for the protagonist. "I selected this title because no one has a personal name in my film," Barmak explains. "Osama has taken over all personalities." In an ironic twist of fate, Osama is being released in the U.S. just weeks after the ratification of the Afghan constitution, which, among other things, restores political rights to women. "I think people want to accept the law and to live their lives under a real law," Barmak says. "So every aspect of our lives should follow this concept, including our cinema."

Soft-spoken and possessed of a Buddha-like calm, Barmak urges restraint to those bent on retribution, such as delegate Malalai Joya, who famously denounced various mujahadeen (Muslim rebels) during December's loya jirga (grand council). "Then was not the time to make such statements," he says. "There are special courts where she can complain against someone if she wants." If any scene embodies Barmak's coolheaded brand of activism, it's an early shot of women's rights marchers chanting, "We are not political." Taliban police choose to open fire on them anyway.

Filmed in Kabul using nonprofessional actors, Osama appropriates the techniques of recent Iranian cinema, from its meta-narrative opening sequence (told from the point of view of a documentary filmmaker) to its indulgence in Makhmalbafian burka-chic. Indeed, Barmak makes no secret of the assistance he received from Iran's first family of cinema. "It was April 2002," he recalls, "and the Makhmalbafs were in Kabul working on At Five in the Afternoon. I told him this story and he promised to find me financing." Mohsen Makhmalbaf eventually funded a third of Osama's $300,000 production costs. He also loaned Barmak his resident cinematographer, Ebrahim Ghafuri, who shot Kandahar.

For Barmak, working with the Makhmalbafs made artistic sense: "We live together in a big cultural zone that includes India, Pakistan, and Middle Asia. Our fate is common." Barmak, who recently assumed responsibility for the Makhmalbaf-founded Afghan Children's Education Movement (ACEM), is no stranger to mixing cinema and politics: In the '80s, he enrolled in Moscow University's film department at the height of the Soviet-Afghan war. In the '90s, he served as an aide to resistance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud while continuing to make short films and documentaries.

"We need the time to analyze everything," Barmak insists. "I didn't create tragedy for tragedy. I created tragedy to find a new beginning." Still, making Osama often confirmed this filmmaker's most cynical impulses. "I found a location, a very old house, and I paid $50 for two nights of shooting there," Barmak recounts. "We wanted to start shooting, but the owner's father said, 'No. Images are forbidden by the Koran.' And I said, 'Where?' He said, 'I'm not able to read or write.' So I said, 'Okay, how much do you need?' I paid him $100 and he was silent."

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