A look beneath the burka

Far more poetic, captivating, and memorable than any nightly news story or human rights report could capture, Siddiq Barmak?s Osama slips underneath the burka-covered world of female suffering in Afghanistan to reveal a moving story involving the oppression and religious fanaticism of the former Taliban regime.

Osama, Afghanistan?s first full movie since the fall of the Taliban and the best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes, enters this cruel world from the start, diving into an ocean of blue burkas storming the streets demanding women?s rights. While what the screen reveals is not necessarily surprising, experiencing it remains unsettling, as Taliban forces break up the peaceful protest, carting women off in trucks.

Amidst the hellish, post-apocalyptic backdrop of crumbled buildings and empty streets, where women are forbidden to walk alone, mind you, lies the movie?s protagonist: a nameless 12-year old girl living with her grandmother and widowed mother. It is clear that in this world, life is void of happiness, functioning only in varying degrees of anguish and distress. With hope fading, the mother (Zubaida Sahar) is forced to disguise her daughter (Marina Golbahari) as a boy so her child can work and earn money for the starving family. Providing one of the movie?s most chilling moments, the girl is forced to sit through the racking experience of losing her long, flowing hair, a segment as painful for the audience as it is for the character.

Interestingly, Barmak resists presenting his protagonist as someone who feels endowed with a sense of liberation and power once she becomes a boy in this patriarchal society. Rather, as all things seem to be in this chaotic world, she realizes her metamorphosis was done out of dire necessity.

Despite being caught in the infectious milieu of fearfulness and anxiety, the girl?s life begins to stabilize once she gets work. However, things immediately change when the newly transformed boy is swept up in the Taliban?s campaign to dump all the local males into military training camp. Tense moments of vulnerability and exposure haunt Osama, the name she is dubbed by one of her ?classmates,? when Barmak films a lesson on religious bathing rituals and a scene of playground mischief. Throughout the movie, Barmak?s direction and Golbahari?s performance maintain an engrossing feel of suspense over the pending fate of Osama and her family.

For a movie filled by amateur actors, Osama surprisingly leaves the viewer with the impression that this is a documentary, a movie of real life events accidentally committed to tape. While Barmak?s bluntness fails to develop any sort of connection between the audience and the protagonist, it is clear that this story focuses not necessarily on what happens to Osama, but more importantly, on what happens to women in general in Afghanistan. Simply put, the film is a straightforward tale of loss ? of not simply one?s basic rights, but of one?s childhood and womanhood.

As much as Golbahari?s precocious talent may leave you with an innocent sense of optimism, Barmak counters forcefully, painting a bleaker image of entrapment, of oppression, often cleverly cobwebbing both Osama and the audience in a sense of hopeless confusion.

While the abuse and suffering of Afghani women has been well documented by the media, these realities seem to remain abstract to Western audiences. Barmak?s work has come along to truly capture this in masterful fashion, dismissing black-and-white depictions for raw, breathing portraits. Providing a nook to view a long-concealed region of the world, Osama transports the audience into a world where the only semblance of hope is the slight relief given once the film?s end credits roll, ensuring the end of the gripping, unnerving images from Barmak and his cast.