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Friday, February 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By John Hartl
Billed as the first movie to be produced in post-Taliban Afghanistan, Siddiq Barmak's "Osama" can't help falling into the political category. Gender is everything in a country where the fanatical mullahs prevent women from leaving their homes, even when their husbands and male relatives are gone and cannot provide for them.
Based on fact, Barmak's script focuses on a 12-year-old girl who pretends to be male in order to find work and support her housebound mother and grandmother. Although there is a fleeting reference to Osama bin Laden and his terrorist training camps (the story takes place before Sept. 11, 2001), the title has nothing to do with him. It's just a name the girl takes when she adopts her new identity.
When her widowed mother puts pressure on a family friend to give Osama a job, the work doesn't last long. Taliban members round up dozens of boys, regardless of what they're doing, and teach the Koran and sexual hygiene. When Osama is less willing than her classmates to participate in the latter, she becomes suspect, and the boys taunt her for being girlish.
Osama isn't the only character who assumes another identity in order to survive. In an early scene, in a hospital invaded by the Taliban, visitors pretend to be related in order to be left alone. They've clearly done this before. Pretending to be someone else has become standard operating procedure.
There's not much they can do, aside from crying "The Taliban is here!" and fleeing from the group's "faith-based" rules, which become increasingly arbitrary in the course of the film. Some people are shot, others are buried alive or stoned to death, while others are freed for apparently whimsical reasons.
This is not the most dramatic of situations for a movie. There are times when Osama can do little more than cry or look bewildered, especially when she reaches her final destination. The Afghan street life, so persuasively suggested in the background in several scenes, often holds more interest.
Given these limitations, first-time director Barmak does an efficient and sometimes powerful job of presenting the girl's (and her country's) dilemma.
And Marina Golbahari, who is rarely off-screen, brings great dignity to the girl's role. It's a melancholy movie, but a necessary one.
John Hartl: firstname.lastname@example.org
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