Like The Pianist, Osama is neither fun nor entertaining. But that doesn’t detract from its value as a film. It also shares with The Pianist a grim portrait of a brutal regime, a powerless protagonist, and the capacity to leave audiences emotionally drained.
Where The Pianist showed a Jewish man trying to avoid capture by the Nazis in Poland, Osama shows a girl trying to avoid capture by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Boys will be Boys
PG-13 for Mature thematic elements
A girl and her mother (Marina Golbari and Zubaida Sahar) live with her grandmother somewhere in Afghanistan. Mother supports them by working as a nurse at a hospital. But when the Taliban come to town (putting down a women’s rights demonstration in an early scene), the hospital closes and the women aren’t allowed to go out in public without a man. The family’s only choice is to disguise the daughter as a boy and send her to work to feed the family.
At first she works at a local shop, stirring the steamed milk in a giant stone vat. She is paid in food, which she brings home to her mother and grandmother. But before long, the Taliban sweep through town, gathering all the boys (including the girl) for religious and military indoctrination.
It’s bad enough that she can no longer feed her family, but one of the boys knows her secret. If he exposes her, she fears she will be killed. He gives her the name Osama, after the notorious Mr. Bin Laden.
Feel the Fear
What Osama shows, all too well, is that things can always get worse.
The women start the film in bad shape. They live in poverty and they must fight for the right to work. But that was better than relying on a pre-teen to win the bread for the family. But even that was better than having to go to Taliban school and letting the family starve. And even that’s better than being found out and facing execution, although the Taliban are capable of worse things than execution. By the end, mere poverty doesn’t seem so bad.
Needless to say, Osama is not a fun trip to the movies, but it is eye-opening. Cultural relativism, “the prime directive,” call it what you will, — the notion that we simply don’t understand the culture and therefore ought not judge — falls apart in the face of life under the Taliban. It’s one thing to read about atrocities such as public executions of foreign journalists or stoning women to death for “encouraging profanity.” It’s quite another to experience the fear emotionally.
That’s what Osama does well. It uses the medium of the movies to make us know what it feels like to live under the Taliban. It lets us feel how wrong it is to be subject to their brand of fundamental extremism.
That may not be your idea of entertainment, but that doesn’t make Osama any less of a film.