A friend told me about Osama almost two years ago. She didn’t tell me about it, she described the film in vivid detail to me, shivering at the memory of the horrors the film described.
No one can doubt that a film that tells the story of a girl in Taliban-dominated Afghanistan will be horrifying. The girl’s mother, a doctor who is no longer allowed to practise, makes her daughter dress as a boy so that someone in the house can continue to earn money. In the new dispensation, if being a woman is a curse, becoming a man is fraught with unexpected danger. The Taliban take the girl away to a training camp where all the boys are made to undergo religious and military instruction. Inevitably, the deception is discovered and Osama – a name bestowed on the girl by a boy she knows – is taken away to prison. There is a reprieve, but it is a blessing so mixed, one could make a case for a honourable death over such a fate.
The interesting thing about the film is precisely this: the way in which it sucks the viewer into such judgements that would be otherwise unthinkable. Living as we do, who would say ‘death over dishonour’ without being ironic? But as you watch Osama’s deception discovered in the most traumatic way (She is tied up over an open well as a punishment. She screams for hours, and when she is finally brought down, there’s blood coursing down her legs, leaving no one in the military camp with any lingering doubts about her gender) you do think precisely that. Because Osama’s benefactor is an old mullah with many wives, who wants to marry Osama. Earlier, this same mullah gives the young boys instructions in how to wash themselves and it becomes clear that whatever Osama’s gender, he has his eye on her.
Would marriage have been a more tolerable solution had the mullah not been fat, bald and old? The film does not answer this in any satisfactory way. In fact, though the bleak piling up of miseries is effective, the narrative scope of the film is so narrow that the only way to view it is to accept the paradigm it offers us and allow oneself to be horrified at the lives so many people must lead.
Not that this is a bad thing, but it leads to the kind of hobbled choices that fall firmly within the same patriarchal set-up this film is attempting to critique. Perhaps those are the only choices available to the women in Afghanistan; but surely a filmmaker can have a different perspective? Through the film, the women passively accept the changes in their life. Sure, Osama’s mother attempts to continue to work. But it takes a male patient to rescue her from arrest; it is the beggar boy who sets himself up as Osama’s protector at the training camp; the only rebellion the wives of the mullah seem to be capable of is to hide Osama and be silent when the mullah comes looking for her the first night.
Perhaps it will take a few more films before Siddiq Barmak can find his feet. As first films go, Osama is miles ahead of the short film I had the misfortune to see that same evening.
But that is another story and shall be told another time.