Just in case you thought The Handmaid’s Tale was fiction, welcome to Afghanistan under the Taliban.
The “Osama” of the title, by the way, does not refer to Osama Bin Laden. The movie is about a girl, probably about 12 years old, who has to impersonate a boy in order to get a job, since there are no males left in her household, and women can’t even leave the house without a male escort, let alone have a job. So this family will all starve if they don’t find a male to attach themselves to, or use this ruse of having one of them pretend to be a male. When she is challenged as to her name at one point, a confederate sees her hesitating and blurts out that her name is “Osama.”
Osama received overwhelmingly favorable reviews. I’m not convinced that the movie as a movie would have gotten that kind of response. It’s competent, but doesn’t strike me as anything special. But I think people raved about it for a couple of reasons. One, it was made by Afghans in Afghanistan in 2003 shortly after the fall of the Taliban when the country was in chaos, and I think people are extremely impressed that even a competent movie could be made under those circumstances. Two, it’s very valuable as a simple chronicle of what life was like under the Taliban at a human level.
The movie takes place in a remote little town where everyone lives in hovels in abject poverty in an environment without much of anything besides a lot of sand and desolation. The Taliban doesn’t feel like a government so much as some sort of ominous force of outsiders that sometimes swoops into town to cause trouble and make sure everyone’s living according to their ridiculous religious rules. The people never refer to them as “the police,” “the mayor,” “the government,” “the governor,” or anything like that, but always as simply “the Taliban.”
The impression I get is that there is no local government to speak of, that it’s more or less a situation of anarchy, but then this outside force—the Taliban—can show up at any time and impose their will.
The first 75% or so of the film is a little slow. There’s a certain amount of suspense as to whether the girl will be found out, but there’s not all that much going on. It’s perhaps more useful as almost a documentary of what life was like during the Taliban’s reign.
And what it’s like is horrible. It’s the stupidity and cruelty of the unholy combination of religion and sexism. Women, for all intents and purposes, have the status of slaves. (Male) children are herded together into “schools” that teach nothing but mindless religious rituals and military skills. Women convicted of crimes (that mostly shouldn’t even be crimes) are given sentences such as death by stoning, or given to old men as additional wives. (Stoning? What fucking millennium do these people think we’re in?)
One of the very few negative reviews I read of this movie objected to it on the grounds that it’s just another effort to use art to endorse America’s wars by demonizing whoever happen to be the current enemies. I’m certainly not unsympathetic to that type of criticism, and there are indeed simplistic elements of this movie that feel more propagandistic than realistic. For instance, the common people, especially the women, are pretty much unanimous in opposing the Taliban, whereas in real life there’s never a shortage of people to support the most brutal of regimes. It’s not as if there are no women in Afghanistan and places like it who are religiously brainwashed enough to embrace their inferior status.
But on the whole, the movie’s not lying when it presents the Taliban as a particularly horrific group of folks. Maybe that’s a portrayal that happens to be convenient for American militarism, but if so, then so be it. What matters is it’s true.
Frankly, my gut reaction wasn’t so much to applaud the American military for opposing these monsters. I found myself thinking instead how urgent it is to oppose our own domestic Focus on the Family type religious zealots whose views about women and gays and social policy aren’t dramatically different from those of the Taliban.
Once the protagonist is found out, the final 25% or so of the movie picks up noticeably. It becomes more intense because you see how terrified she is, and you feel how utterly hopeless is her situation.
Probably the closest movie I’ve seen to this one is Turtles Can Fly. I think on the whole Turtles Can Fly is superior as a work of art. Most of the way, Osama fell well short of touching me as deeply as Turtles Can Fly did. Toward the end it came reasonably close, but still didn’t quite make it to that level.
One could also make a slight comparison with Offside. What strikes me as the main difference in the societies depicted in those two movies is that one is an Islamic regime still early enough to be at the apex of its zeal and orthodoxy, while the other is an Islamic regime that still pays lip service to that stuff, but offers pretty much space to defy it and ridicule it. Thus Offside is able to tell its story of sexist laws and females impersonating males with a certain amount of humor and whimsy. You won’t find any humor or whimsy in Osama, nor in the Taliban’s style of oppression.
I wasn’t fascinated by this movie, and I can’t praise it to quite the degree that most critics have, but it’s clearly historically invaluable as a depiction of one of the cruelest and silliest regimes in the history of a planet that specializes in cruel and silly regimes.