Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Marina Golbahari, Arif Herati, Zubaida Sahar
Director: Siddiq Barmak
Audio: Pashtu 1.0
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: MGM
Features: "Sharing Hope and Freedom" featurette, trailer
Length: 83 minutes
Release Date: April 27, 2004

"My husband's a martyr.  You're my last hope, except for God."

Film ***

One of the more significant aftermaths of the 1980's Afghan-Soviet conflict was a foundation of great discontent and unrest in Afghanistan.  With the eventual withdrawal of defeated Soviet troops in 1989, the war-torn country of Afghanistan quickly collapsed into scattered pockets of blood feuds and internal conflicts..  Mujahedeen, or Islamic warriors, became divided along ethnic and territorial lines, and what ensued was a protracted and violent civil war.

Young men amongst the poverty-stricken populace tried to find some solace through the madrassas.  The teachings of these fundamental Islamic schools offered a sense of unity and purpose, even as the fighting continued.

In September 1994, the mullah Mohammad Omar gathered forth restless men from the southern Afghan province of Kandahar.  These men formed the foundation of a militia dedicated to restoring Sharia, the Islamic law as written in the Koran.  That militia was to become the Taliban.

The Taliban achieved many early successes against rival warlords.  Within two years, the Taliban had seized control of much of Afghanistan, including its capital, Kabul.  Disaffected mujahedeen and followers of the madrassas schools soon lent their support to the Taliban, whose increasing popularity and military strength gave its leaders a legitimate claim to power over the entire country.  By June 1997, two-thirds of Afghanistan was held by the Taliban.  By 2001, ninety percent of the country was united under Taliban rule.  

In this new political environment, Sharia was strictly enforced.  The new totalitarian government, now operated by religious fundamentalist extremists, controlled most every facet of Afghan life.  Modern conveniences and artificial depiction of living things, either through photography or the arts, were forbidden.  Men were required to grow long beards.  Women and girls were banned from seeking employment or studying in schools.  Furthermore, women could only venture outside their homes if they were heavily draped in burkas (long robes which covered them completely from head to toe) and only with the accompaniment of  their husbands.  Violations or crimes against the Taliban order could easily result in severe reprimands, including execution.

The film Osama (2003) chronicles the struggles of one Afghan family to survive within this sociopolitical environment.  The family's plight is worsened by the absence of any men, the husband having been killed in the Kabul wars and the sole brother having died fighting Russian soldiers.  Now comprised of an elderly grandmother, a widow, and her twelve-year-old daughter, this family must somehow adapt to the strict limitations placed upon women's acceptable roles in Taliban society.

Osama opens in a faux-documentary style as a procession of women, veiled within their burkas, march in protest upon the open streets of Kabul.  Their demand is simple - they only wish to be given an opportunity to work and to earn a living.  It is not long before Taliban soldiers arrive to subdue the protest march.  Observing the confrontation unfold before them, the Afghan widow and her child cringe behind a closed door until the violence has subsided.

The widow's plight is similar to the protesters'.  She is about to lose her job at the local hospital, already in partial disrepair due to government neglect.  Without the widow's job, her family has no source of income and faces the prospect of certain starvation.  The widow's solution is drastic, but one born of desperation - the young girl's hair is to be cropped, and she is to be attired in boys' garments.  If she can pass as a boy, perhaps the child can provide some food or money for her family.

The story of Osama focuses upon this young girl as she toils in secret within the Taliban-controlled town of Kabul, always fearful of the exposure of her true identity.  The girl, whose true name is never revealed, is eventually given the name of Osama by Espandi (Arif Herati), a street urchin who befriends her and shields her from the inquisitive glances of other boys.

However, the young boys of Kabul, including the girl "Osama," are soon gathered together by Taliban militia.  They are sent for special training to a madrassa religious school where Koran text is used to indoctrinate them in the ways of military combat.  The children engage in Quranic recitations and rituals such as the ghusl, or full ablution.  "Osama," among all these boys, cannot truly hope to maintain her secret indefinitely, and when her guise is ultimately penetrated, the consequences for her are inevitably dire.

Were this a Hollywood film, perhaps there would be a splinter of hope for the girl's fate.  However, Osama is not a Hollywood production and so deals with its subject matter honestly, avoiding any superficially happy ending.  This film describes an oppressive world where outspoken civilians risk being executed, where prepubescent girls are routinely and forcedly married to elderly mullahs, where even foreign journalists are not immune to Taliban law.  In this world, women have no voice, and even a few fleeting moments of happiness must be tempered by the constant fear of discovery or retribution.

Osama is an illustration of the social injustices that can arise in a society founded upon repression and submission.  It is a provocative film that offers western audiences a first-hand look into a foreign world where amenities and social privileges are not taken-for-granted or so lightly-regarded.  There are many real-world lessons to be derived from this film, and only time will tell if history is destined to repeat itself, or whether humanity can learn from its fallacies.

Video ***

Osama benefits from the camerawork of cinematographer Ebrahim Ghafori.  He had previously achieved compelling work on the Iranian film Kandahar (2001), also about Afghan society under Taliban rule, as experienced through the journey of an Afghan-Canadian woman.  Osama has a rich palette of natural colors, ranging from dyed burkas to sun-bleached villas.  The transfer is sharp and crisp, even during evening scenes, and contains only a trace of dust and debris.  Morose subject matter notwithstanding, Osama is really a gorgeous film to behold.

The only real downside is that subtitles (yellow font in a black background) are burned directly onto the print and cannot be removed.  Fortunately, they are small (but easily legible) and do not obscure any significant film images.

Audio ***

Osama is presented in its original Pashtu monaural track.  Clearly, this is a film for which many people will be resorting to the subtitles.  For a monaural track, the sound is quite rich and occasionally forceful, providing a good sense of ambience, particularly during crowd scenes.

Features *

The disc contains a couple of features.  One is the film's trailer, and the other is "Sharing Hope and Freedom" (23 min.), an interview with Siddiq Barmak.  The film's director discusses difficulties imposed upon Afghan women under Taliban rule and his own efforts to make his film as authentic a record of their struggles as possible.  The interview is somewhat dull in its presentation, but its message is a noteworthy one.


Osama is not an optimistic film but it does present a stark depiction of hardships endured in recent Afghanistan society.  The film's strength lies in its images, and Osama is at its best when these images are allowed to speak for themselves as a reminder of the consequences of a repressive society.

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