From the land of the Taliban
Through "Osama," Siddiq Barmak unfolds the trauma of a tortured Afghanistan, where bigotry masquerades as religion. He tells GOWRI RAMNARAYAN that his film is against the ideology of terror.
THE MOST talked about film at Cinefan, the five-year old Asian cinema festival, in New Delhi (July18-27) came from neighbouring Afghanistan, with "Osama" (2003), an internationally acclaimed first feature by documentary filmmaker Siddiq Barmak, and the first film to be made in that country after the collapse of the Taliban.
Afghan filmmaker Siddiq Barmak made the first feature film, "Osama" (below) after the collapse of the Taliban regime. This internationally acclaimed movie won Cinefan's award for Best Actress and the Netpac award.
Despite its depictions of the traumas of a tortured nation, the film speaks in a language that is as sophisticated as it is restrained. The subject is at once local and universal: bigotry and terrorism masquerading as religion, and the will of God. The nation's wounds are too recent for irony, but Barmak uses an echoic suggestiveness to highlight the import. The film won Cinefan's Best Actress and Netpac awards.
"Osama" virtually sucks you into life under the Taliban regime where women demonstrators on the street (burqas stripping them of all individual identity) are lashed by jets of water in a slushy nightmare. But where is the water in drought-ravaged Afghanistan? ``In my imagination,'' Barmak replies. ``My way of showing how all life-giving things are put to monstrous use by the Taliban. Showing soldiers beating up the women would be too repulsive besides being literal. So I reasoned. But the water actually intensified the horror." One is dumbstruck by the fate of a 12-year-old girl who has to cut her hair and masquerade as a boy to find a job that supports her widowed mother and grandmother.
The mother has lost her job because no woman can go out of the house without a male escort. The child's error during noon prayers arouses suspicion and she is finally taken to a madarasa-cum-military training camp.
The horrors mount as she struggles to maintain her assumed identity in an all male setting, cowering as she watches the mullah teaching the boys how to wash their bodies ritually, and being taunted for being `girlish.' Her friend Spandi names her Osama after the feared figure, hoping this would prevent her from being persecuted, but in vain.
For hours the child is hung by her wrists in a pit. When she is pulled out, her blood-streaked feet disclose her womanhood. Prison follows and her case comes up before the public court which has also been the scene of two death sentences by gunshot and stoning.
The girl is not killed, but given in marriage to a doddering mullah `so that she can sin no more.' The donkey cart takes the child across lonely tracks to his village home where his many wives fill her hands with mehendi, bewailing their fate and hers. One leaves her then, as she walks past one's field of vision to rape and subjugation.
``I found this story in a newspaper report of a little girl who cut her hair to `become a boy' so that she could go to school. Imagine a situation, which calls for a sacrifice of identity, and such dangerous deception! Think of a regime which justifies brutalities in the name of a compassionate God!'' He adds, "Nor is this exclusive to the Taliban. Every dictator, tyrant and terrorist even in a small community, wants to use religion in his own interests. Didn't the Christians burn Joan of Arc? In Afghanistan, the Taliban burnt a thousand Joan of Arcs and used Islam to make a special country of terror and horror, trying to extend their arm around the world. And I think, poor God, Kya Allah samajhte hain kya bande karte hain.''
His film is not against mullahs, he repeats, only against the ideology, which is neither Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu nor Christian, but an ideology of terror. ``Anybody can create it, anytime.'' Likewise the victims in the film are known by generic names mother, grandmother, brother, Spandi (maker of smoke to ward off evil) Osama likewise signifies the loss of socio-politico-cultural identity for the entire nation.
Paradoxically, "Osama" has also been a rehabilitation process for filmmaking in that war-torn nation, whose technicians had fled to other parts of the world.
``I must thank (Iranian filmmaker) Mohsen Makhmalbaf who found the funds and sent his technicians to help us out. All the assistants were Afghans, learning to use their skills again. Now we are ready to make films with an all Afghan crew.''
Already younger filmmakers have made shorts, included this year in film festivals at Locarno, Montreal and Tokyo. Moreover, the "Osama" screening in Cannes this year, winning a Special Mention in the Camera d'Or section, has sparked non-resident Afghan interest in making films in the home country. "Osama's" cast is entirely non-professional including the protagonist, played by Marina Golbahari, a child found begging on the streets. The Taliban in the film are the real Taliban soldiers of the past! Barmak holds no grudge against the poor men who had been brainwashed by the corrupt leaders.
Barmak devised a game to work with non-professionals, using their memories, at times giving completely different explanations of the same situation to capture varying reactions in different actors. Nobody knew the whole story, not even the whole sequence. Barmak will say that filmmaking is like poetry. ``You write without thinking about word, sentence and structure.''
Talk about his control in depicting horror and he will say with a smile, ``I am concerned with the effects of horror, more diabolic when seen in reactions, or in happenings off the screen. I learnt this from `Life is Beautiful', where, at the end, the father is captured and taken behind the wall to be executed. The horror is greater for being heard, not seen.'' He adds after a pause, ``I really wanted to make a comedy, say something good and positive.''
In Barmak's film, but for the chilling situation, the old mullah bridegroom who sings and skips as he takes the child bride home would have been a farcical character. Still a comedy about Afghanistan? Why not, the director asks. Didn't Charlie Chaplin transform tragedies into brilliant comedy? Didn't Aflatoon (Plato) say that tragedy is the highest art, but only when serious truth is told in a way that seems simple, easy and natural?
So is the influence of Iranian reticence greater on the Afghan filmmaker than that of the larger, melodramatic neighbour? Barmak breaks into guffaws as he recalls, ``When I was leaving for Delhi, my six-year-old son fired this dialogue at me, `You are under arrest! Main tumhein nahin chodoonga!' That is how pervasive Bollywood is in my country! I love musicals. Maybe I will make one sometime...''
Not a strange desire in a man whose country had banned all music and dance as immoral, so that at times wedding festivities, when discovered by Taliban spies, were quickly `transformed' into funeral scenes, as Barmak shows in a sequence drawn from real life.
Finally, with the Taliban legacy, you want to know if women can ever come to enjoy equal status with men in Afghanistan, under any regime. ``We know how difficult this is, not only in my country, but in yours, in America, Europe, right from the time of Adam and Eve... Men must have the courage to accept that women are not only equal to them but can do certain things better. It is not easy to give power away, you know!''
It is obvious that he believes cinema can make its contribution to such processes of change, to a new awareness of human rights, by sensitive, empathetic story telling.
Kabul will see "Osama" this month. ``My people will love this story. It is their own.'' Barmak is optimistic.
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