Osama, the Taliban and gender switches

By Chris Beauchamp

No, not that Osama.

Set in Afghanistan during the Taliban’s rise to power, Osama follows the unhappy circumstances surrounding a young girl’s attempt to disguise herself as a boy in a society built on male supremacy. Because of strict laws against women working or even venturing into the streets alone, there is little hope for survival without a male provider.

After losing her hospital job to Taliban tyranny, a widow is left with little choice but to send her camouflaged 12-year-old into the workforce as "Osama" in order to support her family.

Beginning her male career stirring milk for a sympathetic shop owner, it doesn’t take long for Osama to be snatched up by the Taliban and sent off to a military camp along with the other boys. Learning the Koran, Islamic absolutions and military training, she finds herself under constant threat of discovery as the disguise becomes increasingly difficult to maintain.

Befriended and at times protected by a street kid aware of her identity, Osama leads viewers into the depressing but interesting world of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Eventually, she is discovered and we are given a memorable visual to accompany the widespread news accounts of Taliban "justice." The tragic ending works well, as anything else would be implausible in such a tortured country.

One scene has a room full of women hastily throw burqas over their heads and change from a boisterous wedding chant to a funerary wail as the Taliban approach. Oddly enough, it reminded me of the women in Life of Brian dropping the shrillness from their voices to take part in a stoning. The comparisons stop there, however, as the mood of Osama fluctuates from sad to downright depressing with few lighthearted moments in between.

The film’s epic opening scene, with thousands of identically clad women in blue burqas protesting in the streets is especially powerful. Choruses of "Give us Work! We are Hungry!" highlight the oppression and helplessness of women during this era. Like lambs to the slaughter, the women are reduced to a shrieking mob by the machine guns and water cannons of Taliban hardliners.

Osama earned a Golden Globe for best foreign film, a London Film Festival award for Best First Film and special mention at Cannes. The music is subtle, with the exception of sound effects better suited to Friday the 13th in some of the most disturbing scenes. With convincing performances and effectively drawn out cinematography, Osama is a well made but unmistakably foreign film.

It’s not exactly the feel-good movie of the year, but as the first film made in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, Osama offers a fascinating glimpse into the troubled lives led under that ugly, fundamentalist regime.

It’s certainly not for everybody, but if you’re really interested in the country and its past, check it out. If you’re on a date, stay far, far away.

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