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With: Marina Golbahari, Arif Herati, Zubaida Sahar
Written by: Siddiq Barmak
Directed by: Siddiq Barmak
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic elements
Language: Dari with English subtitles
Running Time: 83
Date: 05/20/2003

Osama (2003)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Life as a Boy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Not unlike Majid Majidi's Baran, Siddiq Barmak's Osama concerns the fate of a young middle-eastern girl forced to dress as a boy so she can work and support her family. While Majidi's film stuck with an audience-friendly conclusion, Osama has a bleaker and more powerful outlook. One reason may be that Baran came from Iran while Osama came from Afghanistan, a hotbed of unrest at the moment.

This Golden Globe-nominated film boasts that it's the first film made in Afghanistan since the rise and fall of the Taliban, and it shows that hope is a rare commodity there. Our 12 year-old girl (Marina Golbahari) and her mother lose their jobs at a local hospital when the Taliban shuts it down. Since the family's father and brother are dead and women are not allowed unescorted in the streets, they have little choice but to shave the girl's head and get her a job.

She gets work in a tea shop, but merely walking through the streets to get to work and speaking to customers cause her great anxiety. It gets worse when the Taliban round up all the young boys -- including our heroine -- and shuttle them to a training center. A street thief knows her secret and tries to help her blend in, but her feminine looks soon betray her.

Barmak tells his story without a ton of explanation, preferring to stick to the human aspects of the story. Often, we have no more idea of what's going on than our hero (dubbed Osama by her friendly classmate) does, which increases the film's sense of danger and fear.

Barmak seems to have taken much of his inspiration from his more celebrated Iranian neighbors, using the quietly observed, artfully composed techniques established by Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf. And, like those veterans, he uses untrained amateur talent and beautifully shapes their performances into little miracles.

Osama is also unafraid to be brutal, showing matter-of-factly the strange and unkind justice that goes on in Afghanistan. It can be shocking and difficult to take at times, which almost makes a case for Majidi and his sweeter-tasting endings.

Nevertheless, Osama, like Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Kandahar, will leave you outraged, heartbroken and with a better understanding of the so-called "Axis of Evil." The black-and-white, good-and-evil portraits the TV news presents to us no longer hold water. Remembering the terrified look on the young girl's face makes us remember that we're all human.

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