A new film with the eye-catching title “Osama” stars an illiterate 12-year-old found begging in the streets of Kabul, who plays a girl who poses as a boy so she can work.
It's the time of the Taliban; the men in her family are dead, and women cannot leave home unless accompanied by male relatives.
The movie is the first feature film made by an Afghan since the ouster of the hard-line Islamic regime two years ago. It was honored this year at several international film festivals, including Cannes.
Whatever the result, the movie already has worked wonders for its young star, Marina Golbahari.
Soon after Kabul was liberated, Afghan director Siddiq Barmak, 41, returned from Pakistan where he was a refugee, determined to make a film about the abuses his countrymen suffered under the Taliban and its ally, Osama bin Laden.
Wandering through the ruined capital, he found Marina, a street child begging for food. Speaking in Dari, he asked her if anyone in her family had died during Afghanistan’s 23 years of war.
“I said two of my sisters were killed when a wall in a building fell on them, and I began to cry,” Marina recalled in an interview. “They hired me to play the main character in the movie, even though I couldn’t read and write.”
She has used the money she made from “Osama” and its awards to buy her parents a four-bedroom mud home in a poor part of Kabul. She studies at a school run by Aschiana, an Afghan relief agency for children.
Marina has auditioned for other movies, even though she probably will need plastic surgery to remove two facial scars from a childhood illness.
The movie, filmed in Dari with English subtitles, tells the story of a young Afghan girl who is being raised by her mother and her grandmother in Kabul during the Taliban regime.
Trying to survive
Years of warfare have killed the family’s men, and the regime’s rules bar women from working outside the house, or walking the streets without being covered head-to-toe in a burqa and accompanied by a male relative.
As a last-ditch effort, the family cuts the girl’s hair and dresses her as a boy so she can work in a shop run by an acquaintance.
That lasts until the Taliban enroll the city’s boys in a religious school and training camp allied with bin Laden’s al-Qaida network. There, some boys question Marina’s boy-girl character’s masculinity. She is saved by a boy who tells the others her name is Osama, a name everyone fears.
But eventually her true identity is discovered, and she is severely punished by the Taliban.
The plot is reminiscent of the animated Disney hit, “Mulan,” the story of a Chinese girl who dresses as a boy to become a warrior — although that movie has a happy ending.
Barmak said in an interview that he named the movie “Osama” because “all Afghans were afraid of this name, all of them were losing their cultural and national identities under the shadow of his name.”
The director, who fled Afghanistan after the Taliban banned movies and closed Kabul’s theaters, said: “I wanted to make a film that focuses on why simple people suddenly fall for the rule of extremists acting in the name of religion. It also tries to answer the question: Who are the people behind these dirty political games, these tricks?”
Barmak, who studied film-making in Moscow, worked with an Iranian cameraman and an Iranian soundman on “Osama,” his first feature movie.
Bashful young actress
Marina, whose beautiful smile is never seen on film, giggles, blushes and bows her head in embarrassment while talking to foreigners, even though she is now 15 and Barmak took her to a film festival in South Korea earlier this year.
“To see even a single street child become an artist here has been great,” said Mohammad Yousef, the director of Aschiana, which operates schools across Kabul. “Many of them still live in intolerable poverty. If such films show this to the outside world, that is really needed.”
Ariff Herati, 14, who stars as Marina’s friend in “Osama,” was found by Barmak in a refugee camp.
He has been less lucky. He didn’t save his earnings from the movie and still lives in a windowless mud hut in the camp. Stray dogs pick through open piles of garbage nearby, and some children walk down dirt roads without shoes and socks, even though it is nearly winter.
These days, Ariff’s only reliable source of income is a temporary job at a nearby brick kiln. He also owns a horse he rents out to other children to ride in a nearby park.
“Thanks to the coalition, life is getting better in Kabul,” he said, sitting atop his horse. “If my wish comes true, I will be a hero in another movie.”
Barmak said he’s optimistic about Afghanistan’s future.
He begins his movie with a quote from Nelson Mandela: “I can’t forget, but I will forgive.” Still, he’s not sure he understands what led to Taliban rule.
“I’m a Muslim. I’m not against Muslim traditions,” he said. “But why do people sometimes fall for the lying of some leaders in the name of religion?”