Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Japanese title: Afghan Zero-Nen
Director: Siddiq Barmak
Running time: 83 minutes
Language: Dari, Pashtu
Opens March 13 at Tokyo Shashin Bijitsukan, Yebisu Garden Place
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Of all the repression that the Taliban inflicted on Afghanistan before being removed from power, their greatest offense was undoubtedly their treatment of women. In a country full of war widows, women were prohibited from working, while no social safety net was put in place to see to their needs. It doesn’t take a genius to see the disastrous consequences of such a policy, but when it came to valuing the fantasy of ideology over the reality of everyday life, the Taliban had no peers.

The United States’ intervention in Afghanistan in 2002 has been a mixed blessing for the country, with weak followup in economic development, continuing insecurity, a return of warlords and the shadowy Taliban waiting in the wings. But certain freedoms have returned, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better example than “Osama,” the first post-Taliban Afghan film.

Director Siddiq Barmak certainly picked a loaded title for his debut film. No, it has nothing to do with bin Laden, but yes, it takes a long, hard look at the injustice and ignorance of Taliban rule. “Forgive and forget” is obviously not a maxim Barmak chooses to live by. And with good reason: Barmak, who studied film at Moscow University in the early ’80s before going on to work as a documentary filmmaker for the anti-Soviet Mujahadeen, became director of Afghan Film — the national film institute — until the Taliban came to power. In 1996 Barmak went into exile in Pakistan and the Taliban forced Afghan Film to burn all its prints, while also closing or torching all the nation’s cinemas.

So if “Osama” represents a bit of payback, fair enough. For those of us outside Afghanistan, it is a fascinating, albeit frightening, opportunity to experience the Afghan tragedy, unmediated by Western perspectives. For the Afghans themselves, “Osama” is a powerful reminder of the recent past and an agit-prop blow against the subjugation of women — much needed given that two years after liberation, many women still feel compelled to cover themselves with the tentlike burqa. Lingering fear also means that opportunities to screen this film inside Afghanistan are sadly limited as well.

Barmak’s film, like so many films from neighboring Iran, uses the plight of a child protagonist to draw a contrast between innocence and the idiotic constraints of adult society, its minds curdled by religious fundamentalism. The Osama of the film’s title is actually a girl, played with remarkable sensitivity by 13-year-old Marind Golbahari, who Barmak cast from the streets of Kabul. When the girl’s mother (Zubaida Sahar) loses her job after the Taliban raid the hospital where she worked (carting off some foreign NGO workers for trial), her family — without any living male relatives — faces starvation. So the mother cuts the girl’s hair short and passes her off as a boy to find work.

Cross-dressing is often the stuff of comedy in the West (think “Tootsie” or “Shakespeare In Love”), but for Osama, it’s no joke. If discovered, she will face violent punishment, perhaps even execution, as we see when a woman accused by the Taliban of “moral” crimes is placed in a hole to be stoned to death. The heavy air of oppression, a sort of medieval Orwellian nightmare, is inescapable. While riding a bicycle, a girl is roughly warned over exposing the skin of her sandal-clad feet. A demonstration of women in light blue burqas, demanding the right to work, is broken up by bearded Taliban wielding truncheons and fire hoses: Their contempt for femininity is complete.

It is amid this atmosphere of dread that Barmak spools out Osama’s tale. She works at a bakery until she is pressured by the Taliban into attending a madrassa (religious school) for boys. She’s teased by her classmates, who think she’s effeminate, and Osama “proves” her masculinity by fearlessly climbing up a tree. Her metaphoric ascent to the heavens, however, is followed up by an equally symbolic downfall: The school’s mullah punishes her by suspending her in a well. We sense that it’s only a matter of time before she’s outed.

Unlike many of his Iranian contemporaries also filming the plight of Afghans — most notably filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whose support for Afghan Film, along with NHK and Irish financing, largely made this film possible — Barmak is content to keep his story straightforward, his style classic. He avoids the surreal or poetic touches preferred by his peers, but has a talent for composing direct, intensely moving shots. He’s content to let so much of his film ride on the face of his young actress Marind, and she never lets him down. The film’s final reel will leave you in tears and rushing out of the cinema to see what you can do to help RAWA (the Revolutionary Afghan Women’s Association) or ACEM (the Afghan Children Education Movement, founded by Makhmalbaf).

With so many bad movies like “Kill Bill” and “Charlie’s Angels” these days proclaiming “female empowerment” by having heroines who slice, dice and otherwise kick male ass all over the screen, it’s a refreshing change to see a film deal with real-world problems faced by brave women in real ways. And anyone out there thinking, well, real life just isn’t dramatic or exciting enough to make a good movie, take the next flight to Kabul and try taking a little drive down to Kandahar. I dare you.

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