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[whitespace] Never Forget

'Osama' finds the core of anger in a family of women under the thumb of the Taliban

By Richard von Busack

THE EPIGRAPH for Osama comes from Nelson Mandela: "I can forgive, but I can never forget." (The phrase is also on the monument for the deported French Jews of the Holocaust, on the Ile de la Cité in Paris.) Filmmaker Siddiq Barmak, the Moscow-educated former head of Afghan Film Origination, has made a monumental film to commemorate the infamy of the Taliban.

A young Afghan girl (Marina Golbahari, a 12-year-old nonprofessional actress) is caught in a double bind. There is no man in her family's household, but none of the women are officially allowed outside without a male escort, so they're starving behind the mud walls of their house. A desperate plan to pass the girl off as a boy works--for a while. Young "Osama" (as they rename her) gets a job in a tea shop/pharmacy, stirring boiling milk. She survives until the morality police start rounding up all the male children for compulsory school. At the school, "Osama" is befriended by a street urchin (Khwaja Nader, a toothy, beaky kid who's pleasantly reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman).

Osama is a small weak kid who doesn't even know how to climb a tree properly. This particularly small and feminine "boy" catches the unhealthy attention of the headmaster. Ultimately Osama's terror of the heights at the top of a tree exposes her as a member of the opposite sex. Barmak also follows a few sideline stories to flesh out the movie, with a pair of Western outsiders caught in the religious fascism. He touches on the troubles of a European photojournalist, as well as a Scandinavian nurse at what's left of a hospital. Both are harassed by the Taliban's religious cops. We never see the faces of the policemen; it's as if Barmak wants to point out that it's not safe to look them in the eye. The cops aren't concerned with the suffering caused by the lack of medical supplies, but rather with the all-important question of whether the nurses are properly covered or not.

Osama counts as one of those movies whose visual purity takes its tragedy into a new realm. Rather than being too sad to watch, the film is too angry to resist. Take the last scene of a self-satisfied teacher, at peace with his God, as he wallows in a ritual bath under the stars. It's an unambiguous triumph of evil, but the image is not without sarcasm--this swine is such a silly, potbellied specimen. Earlier on, Barmak arranges the three women--crone, mother and maiden--shut-ins, in a darkened room, a tableau of the victims of the Taliban's perverse fundamentalism. Barmak's crew and some of the financing are Iranian. Like the majority of Iranian films we get here, Osama displays a clarity and economy that shames most of contemporary Western cinema.

Barmak's pre-U.S.-invasion Afghanistan is seen in dusty turquoise and terra cotta that suggest the colors of Georgia O'Keeffe. In an opening scene, where the police soak down protesters in a rally with fire hoses, the images are crisp and gleaming. Even the fantastic waste of water in a parched land seems fresh evidence of the Taliban's folly. You're never conscious of prettifying or melodramatics, but rather of a born storyteller's enduring simplicity.


Osama (PG-13; 82 min.), directed and written by Siddiq Barmak, photographed by Ebrahim Ghafori and starring Marina Golbahari, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose and the Guild in Menlo Park.


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From the March 3-10, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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