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.