You like scary movies? How about one about having to survive under the Taliban?
An Afghan boy is talking to a foreign cameraman and leads him to a march. The first scene shows a large group of women, mostly widows covered head-to-toe in blue, demanding that the Taliban allow them to work.
A small group of Taliban members respond by firing warning shots, dousing the women with water hoses, and forcing a few women into what looks like a chicken coop. And then one of them assaults the cameraman.
A girl’s mother (only one character gets a name and it is not this girl or her mother) is no longer able to work at the hospital. The hospital is closing after not paying wages for a while, the director is leaving because the Taliban arrested his wife, and the Taliban is harassing everyone. The girl’s father died in the Kabul Wars and her uncle died fighting the Soviets. There are no other male relatives in the family. A few male friends and acquaintances pretend to be her husband so that they can accompany her outside, but their willingness to risk their lives for this ruse has limits.
With a speech that sounds like a bit of feminist idealism, but veers a bit into desperate practicality, the grandmother cuts the girl’s hair and alters the late father’s clothes to make them child-sized. Now the girl can accompany her mother outside to and from work, as long as she pretends to be a boy and calls herself Osama. She also manages to get work under one of her mother’s former acquaintances.
And, finally, the boy Osama is able to attend school. A Taliban school. As a student…a taliban.
There are a few problems with this plan to have the girl pretend to be a boy. Firstly, she is not Mulan. Dressing up as a boy was not her idea, but her grandmother’s idea. She has little knowledge about the world of men or even of boys; she frequently messes up, and every little faux pas is an opportunity that the wrong person will find out. She is brave enough for going through with this plan, but her bravery goes only so far, and sometimes she freezes up or does something frustratingly foolish due to overwhelming terror. And the Taliban are always suspicious. It is her luck that the people who learn about it early on do not inform the Taliban, but that luck can run out at any time. There is a sense of dread and despair that overshadows any opportunity for humor that comes from the premise of a girl pretending to be a boy. The moments of dark (really dark) irony are more moments for rage and disbelief instead of cynical laughter. There are maybe two moments in the movie that are genuinely kind of funny, but only one of them is still funny by the end of the movie; the other…is no longer funny, not even in a dark or ironic manner.
The story is fairly short at 83 minutes, but we can see hints at other stories that could have been told, such as the man with the sick father or the European woman trying to help out at the hospital or the almost completely unseen cameraman. The question of why there are so many widows is never truly answered, but a military vehicle shown near the Taliban school provides a pretty clear hint. There is more to Afghanistan than just the Taliban; it is just that the there is no way to oppose them; one has to just live by their rules or navigate one’s way around them.The movie is loosely based on a true story, though it has elements of other stories that the director had heard.
While the movie is realistic for the most part, there are a few moments of flashbacks, slow motion, and dream sequences. There are a few cuts to her skipping rope, which could be taken as a sign of the freedom that she once thought that she had and the childhood that she has given up. She was just a normal girl, skipping rope as normal girls do, but no more. The soundtrack, which is barely there, sounds like a door creaking back and forth in the wind, but the door to what?
One thing that takes a bit of getting used to is the acting. It is very low-key. Sometimes, it seems as if the actors are simply reciting lines that they just read as quickly as they can. I am not sure if this is an acting style or whether it is because this was the first Afghan movie allowed to be filmed in the country for seven years. I guess that I will just have to watch more Afghan movies to find out. I have watched only one other Afghan movie all the way through and it was similar in style to this. I suppose that it sounds like the way Afghan people talk in real life, more naturalistic than dramatic.
This is a very disturbing movie. The MPAA has rated it PG-13 and that seems correct only technically. We don’t actually see much in the way of violence or “adult content”, but a lot of what probably happens comes across as even worse because we just don’t know or because our imagination is left to run wild. Overall mood of the film and the implications behind a couple of scenes could have been enough to give it an R rating. At the same time, the PG of the PG-13 stands for “Parental Guidance”, and this is probably one of the best examples of a film that lives up to that rating. Whether children should be allowed to watch this movie depends on the child and depends on whether the parent is okay with the child watching it. The girl in the film was 12-years-old at the time, so one might have to ask whether 12-year-old viewers might identify with the protagonist and how that may affect what they get out of the movie. It had, apparently, been a little less bleak in tone and maybe a little more hopeful until the director had decided that to have the movie be that way would be too fantastical, given the current situation. And now, sixteen years later…what has changed? I suppose that there is a kind of more mainstream government now, but the Taliban still has power in places.
Like the other Afghan movie that I have watched all of the way through (I have tried watching others, but they came across as copying the style of Indian movies without a budget), this movie has foreign funding, particularly from Iran, Ireland, Japan, and the Netherlands. Whether this means that the movie caters to what outsiders believe the country to be like instead of giving Afghans what they want to see, I cannot say.
This is a good film to bring about discussions about women’s rights, of Islam, of religious fundamentalism, of bullying, and whatever else. In the right context, this movie could inspire curiosity and compassion; in the wrong context, it could harden negative views of Islam further widen the divide that one might see between the value systems that the “Islamic World” and the “Western World” supposedly have. This is a movie that should inspire questions. Questions about how a culture could become like what was shown in the movie, how a culture stays like that, how one could survive in that, how one could change it; stuff like that. It should not be considered an answer to any question, particularly none that include the use of bombs. And while it is good to draw parallels between the place shown in the film and the place that we live in, that can often lead to self-centered naval gazing or ridiculous claims that our country is heading towards Sharia Law. We must always remember that there is a larger world out there that we may not understand now, but we may begin to understand if we just try. Watching this movie may be an uncomfortable way to start, but it is only a movie, and it is only a start.
WTF ASIA 80: House (Japan: 1977, approx. 87 minutes)
WTF ASIA 81: The Missing Gun (China: 2002, approx. 90 minutes)