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Afghan Film <i>Osama</i> Tells of Life Under Taleban Cruelty - 2004-02-18


Afghanistan's first film since the rise and fall of the Taleban portrays that regime's cruelty toward women - who were not allowed to go outside without a male escort and were forced to wear floor-length veiled dresses called burqas. The film is called Osama, and tells the story of a young girl who is forced to disguise herself as a boy so she can try to help her mother and grandmother survive by working for the family.

The movie Osama opens with a shot of dozens of desperate Afghan women, dressed in sky-blue burqas, demonstrating for the right to work. They are carrying signs saying, "We are not political. We are widows." That argument is apparently not enough to persuade the Taleban - who are shown forcibly dispersing them with guns and water cannons.

For Afghan women, life during fundamentalist Taleban rule, from 1996 to 2001, was especially hard. This situation is depicted in the movie, as life becomes increasingly hopeless for the main character's family, which includes her widowed mother and grandmother.

In the dim firelight, the grandmother strokes her granddaughter's head and tells of her plans to cut her granddaughter's hair and dress her as a boy -a boy named Osama.

But, the girl says, "if the Taleban recognize me, they will kill me." Her grandmother urges her to be brave. The older woman adds, "if you do not work, your mother and I will starve."

Osama is the feature film debut for director Siddiq Barmak, who also wrote, produced and edited it. The movie was made with about $310,000 and a cast of non-professional actors, as well as material and creative help from neighboring Iran.

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association assured the film international recognition by awarding it Best Foreign Language film last month.

"And the Golden Globe goes to Osama, Afghanistan," the presenter announced.

No one was more surprised or grateful than the director, who dedicated the prize to Afghans who had given up hope.

"Amazing. [It is a] wonderful moment for me, and for my people," he said.

At a recent screening of Osama in Washington, Afghan women's rights activist Farida Azizi said the story is rooted in reality.

"The film is about a girl who pretend(s) that she is a boy so she could go outside the home and work to support her family after her father's death," he explained. "Although this seems very abnormal to all of you here, when I lived in Afghanistan, I saw many girls who pretended to be boys, just to survive and support their families."

At the same event, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, Sa'id Tayeb Jawad, said the film's title reflects the brutal fear Afghans felt for another Osama who took refuge in the country - Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader believed to be behind many terrorist attacks around the world, including the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

"Some have wondered about the name of Osama for the movie. The simple answer is this - that long before September 11, that name has terrorized and victimized Afghan people," he explained.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison co-sponsored the screening. Senator Clinton said the film's bittersweet message has been told before.

"Osama begins with an apt epigraph, attributed to Nelson Mandela: 'I can forgive, but I cannot forget.' And although Mandela was speaking of a new South Africa, I think it would be equally applicable to a new Afghanistan," she said.

Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky said although the film ends tragically, the outlook for Afghanistan is much more hopeful.

"You can take some solace in the fact that the ending in Afghanistan, which is in fact a new beginning, is brightening considerably. The culprits identified in this film are gone from power," she said.

Activist Farida Azizi fled the country in 2000 because of opposition to her work educating women. She was granted political asylum in the United States. She went back to Kabul for the first time last year.

"I was struck by the hope that I saw in the eyes of the people. For so long, during the Taleban years, people had lost their hope. They were walking around with no soul," she said.

She thanked Osama director Mr. Barmak for continuing to keep her homeland in the mind of Americans, saying this is a critical time for Afghanistan. Please, she urged Americans and the rest of the world, do not forget about us.

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