Osama examines gender roles under Taliban rule

By Nicholas Baer

The opening scene of Siddiq Barmak’s film Osama is one of incredible urgency and power. Shot with a handheld camera, the chaotic scene depicts a crowd of completely veiled women who are marching through an Afghani town carrying signs proclaiming “We Want Work.” Amidst this display of political upheaval, Taliban members arrive on the scene and aim fire hoses at the women, leaving many brutally injured. The scene, shot in the manner of a documentary, acknowledges that the film itself is based on a true story and that it utilizes non-actors, all of whom are people from the city of Kabul.

Barmak gradually reveals his film to be about one 12-year-old girl (Marina Golbahari), one of the women who ran from the Taliban in the film’s opening scene. The girl lives with her mother and grandmother in sparse shelter, as her father died in battle at Kabul. Since women are not allowed to work in Afghani society, the girl disguises herself as a boy to make money for her family. In a striking physical transformation, her long hair is cut, she wears her late father’s clothes, and she is renamed “Osama.” With her fierce, angular face, she successfully passes as a boy and finds employment.

Osama is made to disguise her gender in a patriarchal, religiously fundamentalist society. In this society, women are always in a submissive position, veiling themselves and remaining quiet—while men are constantly asserting their masculinity. Religion does not appear as spiritual here, but instead, boys are randomly forced to recite the Koran as a means of enforcing conformity.

Osama’s disguise is threatened when she is taken with all of the boys in her town to a war-training camp, as dictated by another Osama: Osama bin Laden. In the film’s most powerful scene—and one of the most powerful scenes of any film in recent memory—other boys in the town accost Osama for her feminine qualities and make her prove her manhood by climbing a tall tree.

In one brief shot of breathtaking beauty and silence within this scene, Osama stands at the top of the tree, appearing to have successfully escaped her drab, oppressive surroundings. Barmak depicts her presence amidst the tall branches against a blue sky, and then cuts to a high angle reaction shot of the boys from Osama’s point of view. They stare up at her presence in awe.

Her brief ascension from a stifling society ends quickly, however, as she is punished for climbing the tree. In a low angle shot that almost directly opposes the previous high angle one, the camera looks up at Osama from the bottom of a well in which she is being hung. A tear falls down the well towards the camera while she screams for her mother.

Barmak’s direction in this scene—and throughout the film—is superb, particularly in its use of drab colors and recurring imagery. Most of the film’s shots contain drab colors and earth tones, emphasizing the war-ravaged landscape of smoke and desert. Additionally, throughout the film, Barmak utilizes a recurring image of Osama jump-roping in a jail cell amidst kneeling women. The camera regards Osama and the kneeling women from behind bars—a visual reminder of the strict, oppressive gender roles in Afghani society.

The film is thoroughly engrossing, particularly in the sense of paranoia that it develops within audience members. Like the title character, the audience is in constant fear throughout the film that a townsperson will recognize Osama as a girl. Additionally, the Taliban’s presence presides over the film’s characters, all of whom fear the Taliban, particularly since its members make frequent stops in the town.

Osama conveys an amazing amount of force and urgency to its audience. The film has a clear sociopolitical agenda, but also tells a compelling story of universal interest. Rarely does one encounter a film of such timeliness, importance, artistry, and power.