Around the World in 80 Films

Afghanistan: Osama (2003)

Anyone who has followed along with me through this series will not be surprised to see the direction that this particular piece takes. In a short time, I’ve explored the effect that an authoritarian government can have on film production and I’ve observed the implications of religious fundamentalism on free artistic expression. Certainly nobody will be surprised to learn that Afghanistan has been subject to both of these challenges. Anybody remotely familiar with current events is aware, at least in the abstract, of the political environment in Afghanistan and there will be no surprise here regarding how that environment has impacted film production. If anything, it will be the most severe case I’ve examined yet.

The battle between religious and secular rule in Afghanistan has been waged for most of the nation’s independent history. Some steps toward progressive reform were taken in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but these were met with unrest by the religious establishment and ultimately with violent uprisings and political assassinations. These two decades, though fraught with violent clashes and dramatic power swings, likely marked the greatest balance between these two powers in Afghan history. Silent films were screened in Afghanistan dating back to the 1920s, and it’s no coincidence that in 1946, in the latter half of this brief period of volatile balance of powers the first Afghan feature film, Love and Friendship, was produced. The 60s and 70s were the most active period of film production in Afghanistan, though preservation of this output is sadly sparse.

The Afghan Film Organization is a state run film archive and production group. It was founded in 1968 and played an important role in the development of film production in Afghanistan. As a government entity, it also served to produce news reels that played before imported feature films. Like many nations in the region, much of the cinema enjoyed by Afghan citizens was imported from India. The Afghan Film Organization still exists today under President Latif Ahmadi, an Afghan filmmaker who was only active as a director in the 80s, prior to the rise of the Taliban, but who still dedicates himself to preservation and travels the world to promote Afghan cinema.

Civil war in Afghanistan in the 1990s was essentially the end of Afghan cinema for several decades. When the Soviet Union- who had long supported the Afghan government- toppled in 1991, political unrest and lack of foreign aid led to half a decade of diminished centralization of power, political unrest, and widespread violence. The rise of the Taliban in 1996 solidified the control of religious fundamentalists over the Afghan government. One of the most extreme religious and military organizations in history, the Taliban has imposed brutal and oppressive rule on the nation over the decades since its rise, particularly in the late 90s when its power in Afghanistan was essentially unimpeded.

During this period in the 90s, Afghanistan’s artistic history was decimated. Any artistic product that the Taliban could get its hands on was destroyed. Theaters were burnt to the ground and in some circumstances harsh punishment could be imposed on citizens for even owning a television. Members of the Afghan Film Organization like Habibullah Ali risked their lives saving what they could of Afghanistan’s film history, but most of what the nation produced in the early years of its film industry is forever destroyed. Afghan filmmakers fled the country during this period, escaping to the nearby nations of Iran or Pakistan.

Since US involvement in Afghanistan after September 11th disrupted the Taliban’s rule, filmmaking has resumed in some forms. The diminished ability of the Taliban to restrict all forms of art has lead to a fair amount of resistance filmmaking. As has been noted in other such circumstances, like my exploration of Rithy Panh and Cambodian cinema, production following years of authoritarian oppression tends to be focused on shining a light on the nature of the oppression. Mosen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar is among the most well known films about the reality of life in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. Though the film was produced in Makhmalbaf’s native Iran, he is largely based out of Afghanistan and has deep ties to the nation. Roya Sadat is another prominent filmmaker who has risen in Afghanistan since 2001. She is the first female Afghan filmmaker and her Roya Film House has been one of the more active production companies in the nation.

Siddiq Barmak has become one of the more well known native Afghan directors, and his 2003 film Osama is perhaps the biggest hit to emerge as a purely Afghan production since the Taliban gained power. Osama follows a young girl played by Marina Golbahari who lives in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan with her widowed mother and grandmother. In a world where even leaving the house unsupervised is punishable by death for a woman, it is impossible for this group of three to put food on the table. Their only solution is to shave the daughter’s head and have her pose as a boy named Osama so that she can work and feed the family. Things go awry when the Taliban begins doing recruiting and training exercises with all the young boys in town. Osama seeks the protection of one of the boys from town named Espandi (Arif Herati) who knows her secret. However, it becomes increasingly difficult for Osama to hide the truth, and her resolve wears thin as the boys around her start to catch on.

Osama was shot on a tiny budget, approximately $46,000 when converted to USD. Barmak utilized amateur actors and shot locally in Kabul. The script was largely improvised and the story was based on a compilation of true accounts of Afghan experiences with the Taliban. Though this is not a big budget production, one would never guess in watching it that the project was created on such a small scale. Osama is imperfect, but admirable in virtually every sense. Barmak shows an adept instinct behind the camera, particularly when it comes to framing his actors. He captures the utter pain and isolation of young Osama, and an astonishingly moving performance by Golbahari makes the task fairly easy. Scenes where her face is soaked in tears are frequent yet maintain their power throughout.

In a short 83 minute run time, Osama exposes some of the most devastating practices of the Taliban. Barmak selected an ideal lens through which to portray these atrocities as it allows him to easily capture the oppression placed on women in Afghan society as well as the Taliban’s aggressive recruiting techniques. His choice to approach the subject from the perspective of young people also upsettingly portrays the impact that the Taliban has on children- through oppression and moral corruption alike. International cinema lovers rewarded Barmak’s efforts, netting nearly $4 million in revenue on the film’s sparse budget and awarding Osama the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.

Though Afghan film seems to be on some sort of path to recovery- at least relative to its apparent death a mere two decades ago- the Taliban still maintains a significant degree of control and influence in Afghanistan, and war has left the remainder of the nation in battered condition. There’s no telling when or if Afghan film will ever rebound to be a major player in world cinema. The destruction that has rained down on Afghanistan has left little shadow of the art that should have laid the groundwork for today’s production, and the impact of religious fundamentalism and non-stop political violence is sure to have a footprint on any art that works its way out of Afghanistan for the next several decades.

My journey through world cinema
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