“We will experience tonight for one hour what Afghan girls and women experienced for five years.” That wasn’t true, of course. But Osama comes about as close as a film can get to taking its audience into the harrowing lives of women living under the rule of the Taliban.
The declaration was spoken by Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghan ambassador to the United States, at a special screening of the film hosted by Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Kay Bailey Hutchison at the Motion Picture Association of America last week. It is easy to see why American politicians would be interested in the movie. But it is one that anyone who cares about humanity, or thinks human nature is easily changed, should see.
Osama is the first film that has been made completely in Afghanistan since the Taliban came to power in 1996. The budget was tiny–just $46,000–and much of the equipment was donated. Most remarkably, it was made with a cast of amateurs, picked up off the streets of Kabul. The title character was a street beggar.
Knowing some of this going into the screening, I admit I was not expecting much. I anticipated low production values, simplistic imagery, terrible acting. But wondrously, Osama has none of these things. Neither is it banal, sentimental, overwrought, something that might be expected, given the nature of its subject matter.
The title character, despite the name, is not a boy, but a girl. Her mother was some sort of medical professional–a doctor, a nurse, it’s not clear–but can no longer work. At least not openly. The Taliban, of course, have ended women’s employment. They don’t particularly care about hospitals, either, and she’s owed months in back pay. Not only can she not work, she cannot even leave the house safely. Her husband and brother were both killed in the wars that have plagued the country for years, and so the family has no male relative to accompany them out of doors. Starvation is imminent.
These women have no status, are denied education, and are treated like animals. But they still manage to be smart, shrewd. And so a plan is hatched. The girl’s hair is shorn, her father’s clothes are altered, and she is sent out anew in the world, as a boy. She is terrified. And rightfully so–if she is discovered, she will be arrested, and likely sentenced to death. But starvation is a death sentence, too. (Whether this justifies the terror the mother has sentenced her daughter to is another question.)
The whole time we are waiting for her true identity to be discovered. It must be–she is too conspicuous. Her eyes dart around constantly, she is ready to run at a moment’s notice. She is too nervous to be a fun-loving little boy.
Osama is a sad film, but filled with beautiful imagery. The movie opens, almost, on a sea of blue. Hundreds of women completely covered in burkas are storming Kabul. “We are widows,” their placards read. “We are not political. We are hungry. Give us work.” “Witness the revolution,” a boy declares. But there will be no revolution on that day. The response is swift: gunfire and water hoses.
This scene is really the only “big” scene in the movie. The rest is a much quieter horror.
The girl and her mother are nameless throughout. The film is based on a true story, so this makes sense–they could be any of countless Afghan women. But individual members of the Taliban in the film are usually faceless. They, too, could be any of thousands. And, of course, covered in a burka, a woman could barely see he on whom her life may depend.
Sad and beautiful, Osama is often funny, too. There is humor in even the bleakest scenes. You laugh. But then seconds later realize again the situation, and feel guilty.
The movie has garnered awards, including the Golden Globe for best foreign film. But it was not even nominated in that category in the Oscars.
You can read all you want in newspapers and magazines about the plight of Afghan women in the late 1990s, but, I reflected during the movie, you need to see it to truly understand it. That’s what this movie does. The Taliban ran a police state every bit as terrifying as that in George Orwell’s 1984. But then, isn’t 1984 also words, in black and white? It’s something of a paradox that only art truly makes real life concrete and understandable.
The reception in between screenings of the movie was filled with politicking. Senator Clinton had good things to say about First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao. Elaine Chao had good things to say about President George Bush. There was a distinct sense of triumphalism. America has solved this problem, everyone seemed to say.
But it hasn’t. Afghan women are not parading around in nail polish and uncovered hair, as we saw soon after America toppled the Taliban regime. As Nicholas D. Kristof reports in The New York Times, Afghan women are anything but free. A 16-year-old girl was sentenced to two and a half years in jail after she fled her 85-year-old husband, whom she married at 9. The Afghan Supreme Court has ruled that women can only travel without a male relative during certain hours. In one major city, a woman accompanied in public by a man not her relative can be forced to undergo a gynecological exam.
“Honor killings of girls and forced early marriages are deeply ingrained,” Kristof notes. Did anyone ever think the removal of a few thousand men was going to change an entire culture?
Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash. Her Web site is kellyjanetorrance.com.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire