Siddiq Barmak's film "Osama" begins looking like a documentary. Taking the firsthand view of a camera turned on a women's protest demonstration, the film observes hundreds gathered, in mostly light blue burqas, wielding signs and demanding the opportunity to work. A street boy, Espandi (Arif Herati), approaches the unseen filmmaker, offering to guide him and to bless him with a dose of smoky, protective incense, just as the Taliban arrive, shoving and brutally hosing down the women. As the women are dragged off, arrested, and worse, the cameraman also finds himself assaulted; the frame goes dark.
The chaos of this opening scene is surely jolting. But the composition and rhythm are simultaneously beautiful and abstract, the women's clothing wafting as they run or fall, the Taliban horde made up of turbaned and bearded, murky figures. When the camera takes up the perspective of a 12-year-old girl (Marina Golbahari) and her mother (Zubaida Sahar), who barely escape the brunt of the men's aggression, the film locates its protagonist.
With her father killed in "the Kabul war," and her uncle in "the Russian war," responsibility for supporting the family will soon fall to the girl. When her mother loses her temporary employment as a nurse (her elderly patient dies), the girl must cut her hair and pretend to be a boy named Osama in order to support not only her mother, but also her grandmother (Hamida Refah). Touchingly, Osama keeps one of her braids, planting it in a flowerpot she keeps by her bed.
The first film to be made in Afghanistan since the reported removal of the Taliban, "Osama" concerns the regime's many offenses, especially against women. Young Osama's endeavors to hide her identity are fraught with her own uncertainty -- she's not sure how to behave, as boys' routines and culture are so wholly different than her own. She has the wrong shoes, her voice is too high, and she has no concept of how to pray, as all boys must do daily, in groups. Though she's instructed occasionally by her employer, a man who knew and served with her father, Osama will never be able to keep up with the demands exacted by minute-by-minute surveillance.
Spotted at an afternoon prayer, Osama is rounded up the next day for Madrassa religious and military school: the Taliban trains all boys for Bin Laden's ongoing wars. Given that they know nothing else, the boys are all more or less eager to learn what it means to be "a man," that is, how to pray, how to fight, how to dominate, and how to perform ablutions.
Returning to her mother's house each evening, Osama changes gears abruptly, working as a girl, by serving food at a wedding (held with the groom in absentia, exiled to Iran), populated entirely by women. When the Taliban come by, the women cover themselves with their burqas and pretend to be wailing at a funeral, which, by implication, they might as well be -- whether married, widowed, or single, women have no say over any of their own activities or expectations.
Unsurprisingly, Osama is unable to maintain her deception. At school, though she does her best to act "tough," she is eventually dealt a traumatic punishment for tree climbing: hung by a rope inside a well for hours, as she sobs for her "mother." This incident leads directly to the onset of her menstruation. Hoisted from the well, she has blood on her legs, and while the Mullahs do not have her stoned -- as they do an unfaithful wife -- they do allocate for her a terrible fate.
Though the premise of Osama's tale is categorical -- life for women and girls is horrendous -- it is rendered in a series of telling images. When Osama's mother gets a ride home from her client on his bicycle, neglecting to hide her ankles beneath her gown, the Taliban stop them and accuse her of offense. Cinematographer Ebrahim Ghafuri's camera never even shows their faces, just her feet, at first with ankles visible, then covered, shrunk up into her skirt. Or again, when, following her mother's out-loud wish that god had never created women, Osama's grandmother tries to soothe her, stroking her head while she tells a story where gender is mutable (if you walk under a rainbow, you can switch to boy or girl), the camera holds on the girl's face. It hardly matters that the narrative is so overstated or that the tragedy is so overwhelming. Her face, haunted and grim, offers a simple, immutable truth.
A recurring image speaks to the life Osama will never have, though she imagines it. In this dream, she's in prison, the camera sliding across the bars, to reveal blue-burqa-clad women bowed down in horror and submission. And yet, she also sees herself, jumping rope, an activity she attempts in "real life," but never has space or time to practice. The scene is punctuated with the thunk-thunk-thunk of the rope hitting the floor, as the mobile frame emphasizes the irony of the space she has in the prison of her dream. The diurnal magic and utter impossibility of this simple child's game are unforgettable.