Review – by Roger Ebert (Contains SPOILERS)
The movies are a little more than a century old. Imagine if we could see films from previous centuries — records of slavery, the Great Fire of London, the Black Plague. “Osama” is like a film from some long-ago age. Although it takes place in Afghanistan, it documents practices so cruel that it is hard to believe such ideas have currency in the modern world. What it shows is that, under the iron hand of the Taliban, the excuse of “respect” for women was used to condemn them to a lifetime of inhuman physical and psychic torture. No society that loves and respects women could treat them in this way.
The heroine of the film, Osama (Marina Golbahari) is a pre-adolescent in a household without a man. Under the rules of the Taliban, women are not to leave the house without a male escort, or take jobs, so Osama, her mother and grandmother are condemned to cower inside and starve, unless friends or relatives bring food. They do not. Finally the grandmother suggests that Osama cut her hair and venture out to find work, pretending to be a boy.
This story is told against a larger context of institutional sadism against women. An opening scene shows women in blue burkhas holding a demonstration — they want the right to take jobs — and being attacked by soldiers who begin with water cannons and eventually start shooting at them. Obviously Osama is risking her life to venture out into this world, and soon she’s in trouble: She is snatched away from her job and sent to a school to indoctrinate young men in the ways of the Taliban.
There it is only a matter of time until her real sex is discovered. The punishment handed down by a judge is revealing: This child becomes one of the many wives of a dirty old man, a mullah who keeps his young women as prisoners. At that, Osama gets off lightly; another woman in the film is buried up to her neck and stoned for … well, for behaving like a normal person in a civilized society.
The movie touches some of the same notes as “Baran” (2001), an Iranian movie about an unspoken love affair between a young Iranian worker and an Afghan immigrant who is a girl disguised as a boy. The film is not as tragic as “Osama,” in part because Iran is a country where enlightened and humanistic attitudes are fighting it out side by side with the old, hard ways. But in both cases Western audiences realize that to be a woman in such a society is to risk becoming a form of slave.
What is remarkable is the bravery with which filmmakers are telling this story in film after film. Consider Tahmineh Milani’s “Two Women” (1999), which briefly landed her in jail under threat of death. Or Jafar Panahi’s harrowing “The Circle” (2000), showing women without men trying to survive in present-day Tehran, where they cannot legally work, or pause anywhere, or be anywhere except inside and out of sight. The real weapons of mass destruction are … men.
Who will go to see “Osama?” I don’t know. There is after all that new Adam Sandler movie, and it’s a charmer. And “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra” is opening, for fans of campy trash. I’m not putting them down. People work hard for their money, and if they want to be entertained, that’s their right. But brave dissenting Islamic filmmakers are risking their lives to tell the story of the persecution of women, and it is a story worth knowing, and mourning. In this country Janet Jackson bares a breast and causes a silly scandal. The Taliban would have stoned her to death. If you put these things into context, the Jackson case begins to look like an affirmation of Western civilization.
Osama depicts the cruelty of the Taliban regime, but fails to address the human rights abuses against women in Afghanistan today, says Kate Allen
In Osama, the new film from Afghanistan, women in blue burkas are shown demonstrating against Taliban repression before being cleared off the streets and banished back to their homes or taken to prison.
The film, which goes on to show a young girl disguising herself as a boy to earn money for her impoverished family, is notable for several reasons. Like the acclaimed Kandahar, whose Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf was also an uncredited prodcuer on Osama, the film examines life for women in Afghanistan under the Taliban symbolised by life under the burka. Osama’s main character is played by 13-year-old Marina Golbahari, apparently cast by the director Siddiq Barmak after she begged for money from him.
The women and girls in the film are prevented from working or attending school and are vindictively punished when transgressing harsh social and cultural norms. Osama reminds us that women’s human rights were effectively extinguished under a regime that sheltered Osama bin Laden and incorporated many of his extremist views.
This is a moving and often very beautiful film. It is the first entirely Afghan movie since the Taliban’s removal from power, and it may, as its director says, act as “a good messenger, a good bridge between people for understanding each other.” But in focusing only on the cruelty of the Taliban’s ideologues it comes close to perpetuating the myth that the warrior-students from the madrassas were uniquely evil women-haters. The no doubt well-intentioned remarks of leading figures such as Laura Bush and Cherie Blair – who in 2001 denounced the “repression and cruelty of the joyless Taliban regime” – have added to the notion of the Taliban as the exceptional bogeymen of anti-women repression.
Osama leaves us trapped in Taliban-land, jumping on the spot like the child imprisoned in the film’s final scene, shown forlornly skipping inside a prison. But, contrary to popular opinion, since the Taliban were swept from power in 2001 human rights abuses against women have continued in Afghanistan.
Amnesty International recently documented the case of a 16-year-old girl who had been sentenced to two and a half years’ imprisonment for the ‘crime’ of running away from an 85-year-old husband whom she had been forced to marry aged nine. Another 14-year-old girl was similarly sentenced to three years in prison for ‘running away from home’ because she had been unwilling to marry a 13-year-old cousin. These ‘zina’ crimes – loosely, ‘sex crimes’ – are as much cultural as religious.
The fact is that Afghan women and girls are still very much on the receiving end of harsh punishments in a male-dominated justice system. Last year it was estimated that there were only 27 women judges out of a total of 2,006. Armed groups are able to threaten members of the judiciary into calling off investigations. In rural areas the judicial system is barely functioning, warlords are effectively above the law, judges take bribes and relatives can pressure courts into dropping investigations.
Even the recent loya jirga, or grand council, saw women attendees threatened by male tribal delegates. If women suffer violence they may find themselves not helped if they report it, but punished into the bargain. In Afghanistan prosecution for rape is a rarity. Forensic capability is minimal and victims are apparently scared of being punished for a zina crime if they report the attack.
The international NGO worker who told Amnesty International that during the Taliban era “if a woman went to market and showed an inch of flesh she would have been flogged – now she’s raped” identified a chilling truth about this scarred country.
In revisiting the Taliban’s archetypal misogyny, Marina Golbahari, the 13-year-old untrained actress from a family of 13, effectively stepped out of the post-Taliban Afghanistan for the duration of the film’s production. But the reality of her society is one which still offers few real rights for women and actually fails to protect even girls of Marina’s age from violence, abduction, forced marriage, imprisonment and worse. In the film her by-now-terrorised character’s fate is sealed when she is forcibly married off to an elderly man who imprisons his numerous wives and womenfolk in his fortress-like house. All too similar to the fate of some Afghan women today.
The film needs a follow-up. One that shows how girls and women are being left to their suffering right now in Hamid Karzai’s Afghanistan.
· Kate Allen is director of Amnesty International UK