Top Ten List: #5 of 2003 (world premieres)
Top Ten List: #7 of 2004 (U.S. releases)
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Director: Siddiq Barmak. Cast: Marina Golbahari, Zubaida Sahar, Arif Herati, Gol Rahman Ghorbandi, Mohamad Haref Harati, Mohamad Nader Khadjeh, Khwaja Nader, Hamida Refah. Screenplay: Siddiq Barmak.

I saw Siddiq Barmak's Osama in the local arthouse cinema the same week that Van Helsing camped its way into multiplexes across the country. Half the people I know saw Van Helsing that week, every one of them said it was awful, and most of them had already expected it to be at the moments they bought their tickets. I found a heck of a time finding anyone who saw Osama, though. Two nights later, I actually had a dream that in a sort of Cecil B. DeMented move, I switched the reels at the nearby Regal so that all the ticket-buyers would see Barmak's movie instead of Universal's monster mash. Would that I had ideas or rebel tactics this good in my waking life.

Osama is one of those movies that makes you wish there were a national filmmaking syllabus, requiring all of us from time to time to absorb something important, something eye-opening, something alarming, and something really good. Folks need a lot of convincing to see a depressing Afghani film about a little girl named Osama—don't sweat it, it's a common, unisex name in the Arab world—who risks taking a job and attending a Taliban school dressed as a boy. People who tend to avoid political films or subtitled movies altogether aren't the only ones whose arms need a little twisting either. The arthouse crowd might easily have mistaken Osama for one of those stories you can fill in for yourself based on the poster and the ad campaign: another tale of exceptional human resilience in a notoriously forbidding environment. Or is it, as I read in a few early media reports, an Afghani Boys Don't Cry, drawing to even grimmer but no less inevitable conclusions? There's also the New Yorker novelty factor, i.e., that Osama is the kind of movie you can read about in a magazine, congratulate yourself for knowing about (it's the first movie filmed in Afghanistan by an Afghani filmmaker since the Taliban came to power), and relieve yourself of the obligation to actually see it.

I almost did just that, and thank goodness I didn't: Osama manages to surprise you with its story, even though we have no right to be surprised. The formal economy of the film is so impressive that more happens in these 80 minutes than in many movies twice as long. It's also, as glib as this sounds, fitting and important that the film is short: this blisteringly unsentimental movie does not subscribe to the liberal truisms that every member of an oppressed society is a fully developed soul waiting to be freed. Though the film doesn't harp on or exaggerate its own bleakness the way some of the Dogme '95 films do, it still operates from the tough lesson that cruel regimes like the Taliban don't just silence their people, they stunt them. There would be no point making a two-hour epic about a young girl who is barely allowed any life at all, and though Marina Golbahari's watchful, intuitive performance and the sensitive direction both alert us to the young protagonist's natural curiosity and inner struggle, she spends almost the entire movie in silence, or paralyzed with fear or sadness. From the first scene, when Osama and her mother join a street protest for women's rights that turns bloody and chaotic with the arrival of Taliban patrols, to the scenes of Osama undergoing her outward transformation into a boy and her tentative, terrified entry into the school, the character is under assault and she knows it. She is not particularly resourceful, she takes no pride in pulling off her disguise (which is prompted not by pure courage but by economic necessity), she is not even that well-concealed. Halfway through her first day, teachers and fellow students can tell that something's not right with Osama, and so Barmak is careful not to cheapen his story with an air of false suspense. This is not a movie about whether Osama will be caught; it's a movie about when and how she will be caught and punished, how bad it will or won't be, and what it feels like to live with such awful premonitions.

Barmak's visuals are suitably simple; the travelogue approach that more and more foreign films take to their visuals, especially when seeking US distribution, would sink this movie and warp its priorities terribly. That said, while Barmak enforces the required visual and tonal humility, the widescreen photography still does look commanding and sophisticated, especially for a film made almost without institutional support and under less than favorable conditions. Without budging the narrative one bit from the short, direct line of Osama's own story, we get a sense of how life was lived under the Taliban in the schools, hospitals, shops, streets, and private homes of Afghanistan. Collectively, it's a remarkably complete and potent illustration, despite the necessary limitations imposed by filtering the story through such a cowed, powerless figure. In fact, Osama only works because Barmak has thought about and understood the sensations of childhood as well as he understands those of political domination, and everything in the movie is keyed to both registers without making them synonymous. Say what you will, but not all childhoods are this fraught with terror; place and time do make a difference, even if some of Osama's emotions feel "universal." The secondary characters aren't caricatures, but the film conveys them more as iconic sources of fright, awe, obedience, or intimidation than as fully-rounded people; this seems perfectly in keeping with Osama's childish perspective, and with the larger context of her predicament and Afghanistan's predicament. The scenes in the courtyard of the school, as young Afghani boys run and holler and form impromptu gangs, are perfectly recognizable to anyone who ever attended school, though again, context is crucial. These scenes are much more frightening here than they otherwise would be, given our alertness to the lethally chauvinist power network these boys are being assimilated into.

All of this is accomplished with a steady enough hand that Osama's technical prudence and crucial self-restraints may only register when the film is over. It's certainly not a movie you quickly give up thinking about, and because the overt messages are so overwhelmingly power, the subtle care that's been put into their conveyance needs time to register. All things considered, in what has already been a uniquely nourishing springtime at the movies, Osama is as thought-provoking and relevant as Dogville, as scary as Dawn of the Dead, and as sure-footed in its own structural and visual choices as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, though obviously the story and context of Osama couldn't be more different than those of any of these pictures. Maybe the only thing it has in common with them is that it already ranks among the year's best films, and as the first of the lot to debut on DVD and VHS, you owe it to yourself to catch up with it. Just don't plan to go to a party afterwards. Grade: A–

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners (2003):
Best Foreign-Language Film

Other Awards:
Cannes Film Festival (2003): Caméra d'or (Special Mention)

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