New Internationalist

Osama

March 2004
Taking refuge in boyhood – a girl called Osama.

We never learn her real name but she lives with her mother and her grandmother. Her father is dead, a casualty of war. The Taliban – this is the late 1990s – ban women from working and even from leaving the home without a male escort. The mother, a nurse, cannot work and so the family face starvation.

To survive they disguise the 12-year-old girl as a boy – Osama. This is no theatrical convention. The film is bleakly, vividly realistic and the crop-haired girl is often terrified – the transgression could mean her execution. At first the risk is low. She helps an old comrade of her father who runs a bare little-frequented cafeteria and at the end of the day scurries home with bread and milk. But when the Taliban press-gang local boys and she finds herself in a military training camp, she’s in trouble. Although, in her father’s cut-down clothes, she can pass for a boy in appearance, she just can’t act like one.

Of course, it’s her biology that threatens her. A scene where a rotund white-bearded kindly-looking Taliban patriarch demonstrates ‘wet-dream’ and ‘prayer’ ablutions to the rough unschooled boys is excruciating. Here, as the boys stand around in towels, she hides herself in a cubicle.

Osama sees Taliban executions. At one of them, when a woman is buried up to the head and stoned, local men and boys encircle the victim to see better or to participate. This is a film about horrendous oppression and brutality but it’s also very tender: people – men and women – look out for each other. Marina Golbahari, with no previous acting experience, is a wonderful, wary, wide-eyed Osama. Director Barmak, chair of the Afghan Children’s Education Movement, does a fine job. His images will lodge in your mind.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 365 This column was published in the March 2004 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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