REVIEW by Willard Manus

OSAMA is the first entirely Afghan film shot since the rise and fall of the Taliban. Written, directed and edited by Siddiq Barmak, an Afghani who at one time served as an aide to Ahmed Shah Massoud, Afghanistan's national hero during the Soviet invasion and in the Taliban resistance, the film was screened to much acclaim at the recent AFI festival, thanks to its heart-rending depiction of life under the Taliban.

In 1987 Barmak studied film direction at Moscow University, after which he took on the challenge of making films in Afghanistan, a country which, in the past 100 years, has produced fewer than 40 shorts and features, due to economic and cultural restraints. (In contrast, Afghanistan's neighbor, India, produces three films a day). Against these odds, Barmak served as the head of the Afghan Film Organization between 1992-96 and made several shorts, all of which were confiscated by the Taliban.

Among his credits is Ascent, a documentary dealing with the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan from 1979-1989.

Once the Taliban regime fell, Barkan reestablished the Afghan Film Organization and began work on OSAMA, backed by a small amount of funding from NHK (Japanese TV) and leBrocquy Fraser Ltd (Ireland). Barkan was inspired by the true story of a young girl who was desperate to get an education, even though such a thing was forbidden by the Taliban. She changed her appearance by cutting her hair and trying to pass as a boy.

In Barkan's script Osama, the 12-year-old heroine of the film, is the daughter of a poor family struggling to survive. Because both her father and brother were killed fighting the Russians, her mother and grandmother can barely make ends meet. The mother has a job as a nurse's aid, but must battle the odds to get to work. Under the Taliban, no woman, no matter how well-cloaked she was, could venture outside alone. When her longtime escort, a man pretending to be her husband, loses his job, the mother can no longer leave home.

To put bread on the table, Osama, a sadly beautiful child with luminous brown eyes (played by Marina Golbarhari), must go to work as a helper in a tea shop run by a friend of the family. But because not even a young girl can appear in public alone, Osama's mother decides she must be shorn of her locks and put in trousers.

Deprived of her identity, living daily with danger, Osama begins life as a young man. In an ironic twist of fate, she is rounded up with other neighborhood boys and sent to a religious school run by the Taliban, who mix military instruction with fanatically puritannical teachings from the Koran.

In such a climate, Osama's feminine qualities--high voice, soft features, unfamiliarity with mosque rituals--lead to her downfall. Her secret is discovered--with increasingly horrifying results.

OSAMA is a damning and shocking indictment of the Taliban's perversion of the teachings and values of the Koran. The hatred and fear of women, disdain for human and civil rights, severe restrictions on culture and art, despotic control of the public that have plagued Muslim countries for centuries, are laid bare and dramatized powerfully and bravely.

The amazing thing about OSAMA is that all the actors in it are non-professionals. They do splendidly, especially Golbarhari and Khwaja Nader (as a street urchin who befriends and tries to defend her). Barmak must be commended, not only for the way he has handled them but for his poetic style of filmmaking, the way he frames and lights his shots, creates setting and mood. Above all, he should be praised for his closeness to, and reverence for, the ordinary people of Afghanistan.