Every now and then, a film comes along that clearly demonstrates how low our expectations for the medium have fallen: Give us a few laughs or thrills and avoid abject stupidities, and we'll probably be happy. Osama, the first film produced in post-Taliban Afghanistan, is a reminder that motion pictures can do more, that at their best they can transport us, with utter conviction, to a time and place far removed from our own.
In this case the "time" in question is only a few years ago, before the toppling of the Taliban, but it might as easily be millennia. The particulars are well known: Women were not allowed to work or to leave their homes without male escort and, when in public, were forced to wear the all-covering burkha; those who violated these and other rules were subject to beating and even execution. But Osama director Siddiq Barmak gives these atrocities a new and horrible intimacy by recognizing that the political is personal, too. The film opens with a demonstration by Afghani widows asking for the right to work ("We are not political," they chant, "we are hungry"), before quickly narrowing its focus to a young girl (Marina Golbahari), whose real name we never learn. Her father and uncle were killed in wars, and the hospital where her mother worked has been closed by the Taliban. In order to feed the two of them and a grandmother, the mother orders Golbahari to cut her hair and dress as a boy. She does so, and takes a job in the shop of a man who was friends with her father, pretending her name is Osama. Soon the Taliban come to take her for religious schooling which, while forbidden to girls, is mandatory for boys. Eventually she is found out, and put on trial for her life. I will not reveal the outcome except to say it is not a happy one.
A Hollywood film that dealt with such themes would inevitably be a three-hour epic, filled with secondary storylines and cameo roles, ostentatious aerial shots and a heart-string-grabbing score by John Williams or James Horner. In Barmak's hands, by contrast, it is a masterpiece of simplicity, devoid of bells and whistles and running a mere 82 minutes. "My target is to make films for my people, who don't completely understand different dramatic styles or too much poetry," he explained to Sight and Sound, "so mine is a very simple, direct way of telling a story." The result is a film chillingly balanced between documentary and fable, between the real and the surreal. The effect is dislocating: Even as we know the truth of what we are seeing, it is all but impossible to believe it. Barmak has created, or rather recreated, a closed universe of self-reinforcing degeneracies: fanaticism, poverty, war, sexual depravity. His decision to keep off-screen the violence that occurs during the course of the film--including the death by stoning of a Western woman who worked at the hospital--only heightens the feeling of ill-defined menace and dread.
Even the physical setting evokes the worst of the modern and the primitive. The blasted, beautiful cityscape of Kabul consists of old buildings with fresh wounds; assault rifles are everywhere, yet even an important mullah commutes by donkey cart. And then there are the ubiquitous burkhas. Osama captures better than any documentary the malevolent ingenuity of the head-to-toe covering, simultaneously a prison for, and erasure of, the woman it covers. Each time a female character dons the burkha--and especially when it is pulled over her by a man--she is not only dehumanized, she is willed out of existence altogether: faceless, voiceless, helpless.
And Barmak's protagonist truly is helpless, in a way that films rarely have the courage to convey. This is no wishful feminist parable about a strong-willed young woman facing tough odds. "Osama" is a weak, confused, foolish girl, a pawn not only of the Taliban but of her mother and grandmother as well. She passively watches her life unfold as if she were outside of it, but with a constant fear in her eyes that shows she knows she's not. Those eyes are perhaps the greatest marvel in this somber, eloquent film. Golbahari, like the rest of the cast, is not a professional actor, yet her face is as evocative as that of any movie star. When she is silently watching, her eyes have an almost disconcerting intensity. Now fourteen years old, Golbahari was one of thirteen children and begged in the streets before Barmak found her. She reportedly witnessed the death of one of her sisters in a rocket attack. It is hard not to wonder, with sadness, what else those young eyes may have seen.
Observation is also a theme of Kandahar, the 2001 film that, until Osama, was the best-known fictional representation of the horrors of the Taliban. The movie tells the story of Nafas (Nelofer Pazira), a Canadian journalist born in Afghanistan. When the sister she left behind contacts her to say she intends to kill herself, Nafas undertakes a journey from Iran into and across Afghanistan to Kandahar, where she hopes to save her sister's life.
It is a frustrating trend in recent years for films to engage with subjects such as war, terror, and famine from the perspective of journalists covering the story--to wit, The Year of Living Dangerously, The Killing Fields, Welcome to Sarajevo, HBO's recent Live from Baghdad. This is partly a manifestation of the media's self-mythologization, and partly a way to help comfortable Western audiences relate to what they see, to give them a proxy for their shock and horror. But this secondhand storytelling inevitably diminishes the immediacy of what unfolds onscreen, as we associate ourselves with historical spectators rather than participants.
This is particularly true of Kandahar. Pazira is not a victim of the Taliban (at least not until late in the film) but, befitting her occupation, an observer. Because of this, the film has a frustratingly journalistic feel to it. Its structure is episodic: As Pazira travels across the country she wanders into instructive set pieces--a madrassah where young boys are taught to worship Allah and the Kalashnikov; a Red Cross outpost where Afghanis maimed by landmines line up for prosthetic legs; a doctor's office where female patients can only be examined through a small hole in a sheet hung from the ceiling. The didactic tone is exacerbated by the ongoing narration Pazira offers her pocket tape recorder. "In Afghanistan each ethnic group has a name and an image of its own--Hazaras, Uzbek, Turkoman, Tajik," she recites at one point. "But the women in the country, who make up about half the society, has no name or image, because they're all covered."
If Osama offers an inside view of Taliban Afghanistan, Kandahar is very much on the outside looking in. There is a reason for this, of course. Kandahar was filmed while the Taliban was still in power, which is to say, it was filmed not in Afghanistan but in Iran by Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. At the time, this outsider's view was perhaps the most we could hope for. Now, thanks to Barmak--and to Makhmalbaf, who helped raise the money for Osama--we have a portrayal of life under the Taliban more vivid, more personal, more harrowing.
The Home Movies List:
Five films that take us somewhere else
The Bicycle Thief. One of the inspirations for Osama, Vittorio De Sica's 1948 masterpiece is an intimate portrait of one man's desperation in the face of an uncaring society. (He was less unlucky than "Osama" though: All he needed in order to work was a bicycle.)
Bladerunner. Despite the flying cars, still perhaps the most compelling cinematic vision of the future. Avoid the version initially released in theatres at all costs; the far better director's cut does away with its hokey voiceover and idiotic happy ending.
Howard's End. The most lush and evocative of the Merchant-Ivory collaborations. Emma Thompson won appropriate accolades for her performance, but Anthony Hopkins, fresh off his Oscar for hamming it up in Lambs, received insufficient attention for his sympathetic portrayal of an utterly reprehensible man.
The Ice Storm. Ang Lee's underappreciated adaptation of the Rick Moody novel does an exceptional job of capturing the narcissism, social dislocation, and just plain weirdness of the early 1970s. Uniformly well-cast, with particularly good performances by the kids: Christina Ricci, Tobey Maguire, and Elijah Wood.
Memento. Other movies have unfolded in reverse chronological order (Betrayal, Irreversible), but generally to make a point about fate or the ability of small decisions to provoke large outcomes. Memento employs this gimmick to a more interesting end: to place us, along with the protagonist, in an amnesiac state of mind.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.