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Billed as the first motion picture to emerge from the post-Taliban Afghanistan, writer/director Siddiq Barmak's Osama made a splash on the 2003 festival circuit on its way to securing a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. For those who saw it during its earliest screenings, it must have come as something of a shock — Westerners certainly knew of the Taliban, had seen the pictures of shapeless blue burkas, had heard the stories of banned Western media and soccer-stadium executions of errant women. But with its brief running-time of 83 min., Osama illustrates life under the Taliban in stark relief, offering no sympathy for the deposed theocracy. Marina Golbahari stars as a 12-year-old girl whose father died during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s. Now living with her mother (Zubaida Sahar) and grandmother, they find themselves impoverished after the Taliban closes a hospital where they work. On the brink of starvation, it's soon decided that the young daughter will have to be disguised as a boy so that she can take on a basic job anywhere. With her hair cut short, and dressed in the altered clothes of her dead father, she finds employment in a shop, but it isn't long before street urchin Espandi (Arif Herati) recognizes her through her disguise. Elements of the Taliban authorities also become suspicious, although before much longer Espandi and the girl find themselves forcibly enrolled in a Taliban training school, where she takes on the name of "Osama." Now separated from her family, she has nowhere to turn — and it's virtually impossible to keep one's gender a secret in a school for boys. Osama has been widely billed as "based on a true story," but as writer/director Barmak notes in an interview on this DVD, the tale actually was of a girl who purposely disguised herself in order to attend school — a premise that's barely utilized here. In fact, if one were to find a chief fault in the picture, it's that the central character of Osama spends the entire story being acted upon by outside forces, and then passively reacting to her torment, rather than taking up any sort of action on her own, which would create a greater sense of conflict. However, a pre-teen girl abandoned by her family and harassed by the Taliban likely would do little more than weep — creating a more assertive central figure would be both implausible and disingenuous. Where the film is strongest is in its several vignettes, offering a window to Afghan life under the Taliban — the opening sequence as shock-troops disrupt a women's protest with water cannons; a secretive gathering of women, enjoying food, song, and companionship; the boys' school, with its rowdy playground and extensive lessons on religious ablutions; Osama's hideous punishment, suspended by the waist in a well, where she cries for her mother; the outdoor Taliban court, which leads to both an execution of a western journalist and the stoning of a woman buried up to her neck (both offscreen); and the final sequence, as Osama is sold to an elderly mullah and taken to his home, where he keeps his wives locked up in separate rooms like a collection of exotic animals. With her haunted, expressive eyes, young Marina Golbahari gives Osama a soul, even if the script doesn't provide her with much character — the recurring image of her, skipping lightly over a yellow rope in a prison full of huddled blue burkas, becomes our final memory of one girl who is meant to represent millions of women around the world. MGM's DVD release of Osama features a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with monaural DD 2.0 audio. Supplements include "Sharing Hope and Freedom" with comments from Siddiq Barmak (22 min.), the theatrical trailer, and trailers for other MGM titles. Keep-case.

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