March 2, 2004

CC Doesn't Wear Burkas

Last week, Cinecultist caught a screening of Osama and then sat down with Doug French of via IM to discuss the Taliban, the camera as character and how CC is going to single-handedly make ankles the new cleavage. Following is the a reprint of our conversation, published yesterday on Filmington.

DOUG Welcome to Filmington’s Religious Zealotry Week! After all, what better way is there to kick off Lent than a back-to-back smack of man’s inhumanity to man, all in the name of devotion? We’ll get to THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST soon enough, but first we have OSAMA, an insider’s view of life under Taliban rule. And with us once again to discuss this Golden Globe winner is Cinecultist’s Karen Wilson.

KAREN I too thought of this film’s relation to Ash Wednesday with its fixation on sin and redemption. Watching it last week reminded me how happy I am to be a young Manhattan Jew who can enjoy working and doesn’t have to wear one of those olive green burkas. OSAMA is a beautiful and moving picture with thoughtful things to say about the state of women in the Middle East, but it’s not particularly upbeat or fun-loving.

DOUG Them Talibansters weren’t exactly a barrel of laughs. We’ve all read that the Taliban were a rare breed of religious hotheads who subjugated women to the point of nonexistence. But from OSAMA, written and directed by Afghan filmmaker Siddiq Barmak, we learn that a lot of this stricture comes from a deep fear of temptation. Sins of the flesh, and all that.

KAREN It’s interesting how the Taliban rhetoric, as depicted in the film, implies that women just can’t trust men to control themselves—which is why women must be covered and curtailed—and then shows that men are motivated by lust to do despicable things. One of the film’s most evocative shots is the close-up of a pair of a woman’s ankles as she rides the back of a bicycle. Her feet are so delicate in those utilitarian sandals, but just as we’re admiring them, she is told to cover them up to avoid arousing some passing man. OSAMA succeeds because it allows these moments to be visual and subtle, rather than purely melodramatic or histrionic, while still driving home that sense of injustice.

DOUG And that’s ingrained into us from the very beginning, as a brave troupe of women (still covered from head to toe in the desert heat) dares to protest their inability to work and is violently dispersed with hoses and gunfire. It’s a great motif, since the waves of sky-blue burkas offer the only color in an otherwise grim palette of gray, beige, and black.

KAREN The other thing I loved about that sequence is the way the camera becomes a character in the scene. How could we be glimpsing this dramatic moment as these women take to the street? Why, if there’s a foreign journalist with a VHS camera there, of course. It reminded me a bit of RUSSIAN ARK, in which the narrator becomes a character, as we later see the grave consequences of that foreigner watching the actions of the “holy” Taliban. Beautiful and scary, that’s what this movie is the whole way through.

DOUG ARK is a spot-on appropriate reference, since Barmak trained in Moscow. But I hope you mean “beautiful” in the stylistic sense. Because though OSAMA is delightfully unassuming in its blunt character portrayals, its settings are arid enough to make you feel like you’ve stuffed about a billion saltines in your mouth.

KAREN The camera work is very assured, and the women’s complete resignation to their lot in life based on their gender is quite depressing. But because even the thought of rebellion is so foreign to the women, OSAMA is not the sort of plucky feminist movie you might see Hollywood make (about a blonde female boxing promoter, say). The mother and grandmother must either disguise the daughter as a boy or starve. It’s not as though the girl longs to be a boy—in fact, she must be convinced every night to keep up with the charade. To be talked into having hope, now that’s a bleak life to be living.

DOUG The truly inspired turn is Barmak’s casting of Marina Golbahari, who has a fragile Natalie Portmanlike look about her, as the girl whose real name we never learn. (What would be the point?) Rather than fit in easily, she stands out as girlish and awkward, and worse still, she seems aware of it enough to look over her shoulder at every turn.

KAREN All the actors are fabulous in a Italian Neo-Realist “look at the diamond in the rough we just discovered!” sort of way. I wonder, though, how much of what they’re doing on screen is actually a performance, or just being lead by a skillful director to project what they already have experienced in their own lives.

DOUG Yeah. Maybe it’s an Afghan BEST IN SHOW. The you-are-there POV is enthralling, but about halfway into the charade I began to wonder if some of these plot escalations were a bit contrived. If gangs of boys are pestering her and saying she’s a girl (and the assertions are understandable, given her high voice and slapfighty defenses), why not check under the hood and be done with it?

KAREN You think those thugs are afraid of some ankle but will make some random little “boy” drop trou on the moment’s provocation? The audacity of what she does is obviously unusual, otherwise wouldn’t all of those protesting women also be impersonating men so they could work? There wasn’t any part of the plot that I found unbelievable, mostly because the injustice of the whole lifestyle is so jaw-droppingly horrific. I give this movie a resounding recommendation, though it’s not for the faint of heart or the easily upset. $10.25. I’d pay full NYC price for sure.

DOUG Healthy plaudits for a worthy film, but it ain’t worth Filmington’s first $10+ rating, in my view. I felt for “Osama,” especially as she navigated the genital-washing seminar from the old mullah/perv, but she remained oddly flat to me. I suppose that’s the point, since the real “Osama” was probably no one that special: just a girl who did what needed doing. It’s great enough that OSAMA was ever even made, and all the more gratifying that it was made so well.

KAREN OSAMA is the rare kind of movie experience that gives you an intimate look at a new universe and also makes you feel blessed to be only looking in from afar. I don’t think I could see it again soon, but like some of my favorite films from last year—such as LILYA 4EVER—OSAMA was very emotionally gripping. Maybe that’s why I appreciate movies that depict religious zealotry or injustice. I can look at the women in burkas without having to wear one myself.

DOUGOoh, yeah. Show us them ankles!

Posted by karen at March 2, 2004 7:38 AM