A Bright Hope in a Sad Land

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She has the eyes of an orphan too proud to plead, too desperate to reproach. She is poor, female and 12, and in mid-'90s Afghanistan, with the Taliban thug clerics in power, that means no schooling, employment or respect. Then her mother has an idea. Cut the girl's hair, dress her in robes and give her a boy's name — Osama — so she can find work as a "boy" and support the tattered family.

The plot of Siddiq Barmak's Osama sounds like a twist on an old story. It's an unsentimental Yentl or — considering the eerie resemblance of Osama's Marina Golbahari to Hilary Swank — an Afghan Boys Don't Cry. In 2001 Iran produced a similar fable, Baran, set among illegal Afghan refugees in Tehran. But life has ways of imitating art. Osama, the first feature made in Afghanistan since the Taliban seized power, is based on a true story. And truth shines through every frame, thanks to Barmak's storytelling skill and his young star's unaffected radiance.

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The mother's reckless ruse has ominous consequences. Everyone notices that this Osama is different — "like a nymph," one man says. After landing a menial job, the girl is taken to the men-only prayer ritual, where each lad is instructed in the proper washing of the male genitals. Her deceit is discovered when she has her first menstrual period, and she is married off to an old mullah.

Heartfelt and handsomely made, Osama is the story not just of one unfortunate girl but of a nation besieged by autocratic theocracy. The film roams Kabul's streets for vignettes of the regime's depredations. When a Taliban inspector arrives at a hospital where a female doctor is treating an old man, the doctor must conceal herself by quickly donning a burqa and claiming she is the wife of her patient's son.

A film like this from a country like Afghanistan might seem a curiosity. It is more like a miracle. When the Taliban took over in 1996, it torched theaters, burned thousands of reels of film. Barmak, then head of the state-run Afghan Film Organization, fled Kabul and made documentaries for Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud (later assassinated by al-Qaeda). After the regime's overthrow, he returned to make educational films for the illiterate majority and toured the country with eight cinema caravans, which also screened old Chaplin and Keaton comedies. "Our technical guys cried," he says. "It was the first time they had seen people laugh in years."

Barmak found his Osama leading lady on a Kabul street: a girl approached him, begging for money. "Her eyes," he says, "were like an explosion of light." Golbahari didn't need to reach deep for the emotions she was to show onscreen. "He asked what made me sad," she says. "I thought about my sisters, who died during the war, and I just started crying."

Afghanistan, whose headlines for years read like a wail of pain, has had many reasons to cry. Now its citizens can laugh and cry at the movies. The rest of us can cheer.