In one scene in Osama, named Best Foreign Language Film at the 2004 Golden Globe Awards, a mob of women carrying protest signs jostles anxiously down a dusty Afghan street. All are covered in head-to-toe burkas. They have no faces and thus no expressions. They are without the uniqueness that makes us human. By forcing all women to hide under the same anonymous shroud, Taliban men have robbed themselves of many blessings. They truncate their own lives by oppressing the women who could have been their friends and colleagues.
Western media tend to do the same for Middle Eastern people in general. Soundbytes on the news portray rabid, turban-clad fanatics firing Kalashnikovs into the air. The need to simplify complex issues drives the media to rely on blanket generalizations. Yet a casual look at films from Muslim and Middle Eastern countries belies a vibrant, multi-faceted word of surprises.
Osama director Siddiq Barmak was born in Afghanistan and attended film school in then-communist Moscow. Osama was edited and partially financed in Iran. For many Westerners, this would make him three times a suspect, yet Osama is a work of power, beauty and truth. It plays like an Old Testament story. That Barmak could, and would, make such a film tells us that there is more to Afghanistan and Iran than the media lead us to believe.
Since we build so much of our world view upon the filtered images of news, television and film, it behooves us to thoughtfully examine the media of other cultures. When I show international films to my college and high school students, I ask, "What do we know about this culture that would help explain why this movie was so popular there?" "What do they believe about God and humanity?" "Who are their neighbors?" I wish I'd understood this concept 35 years ago, before I left for Vietnam. When my ship arrived it occurred to me that despite my confident pro-war stance, I had no idea where I was. I had to look it up on a map. As I gradually realized that most of my opinions came from ignorance, I set about trying to learn something, which ultimately changed many of my vigorously defended certainties.
In Osama, the blue-clad women are protesting a lunatic Taliban rule that makes it illegal for them to work outside of their homes, or even leave their homes, without a male relative. Soon the women begin screaming in terror as Taliban enforcers wade into the crowd, beating and arresting women who are then locked up in wire cages. One wonders at first how these women could be so brave—or reckless. We find out that the women are widows, whose sons too are dead from the wars. They are starving.
A girl, played with wild-eyed fear by Marina Golbarhari, retreats into her modest home and seeks comfort in the arms of her mother and grandmother. Her father died in the wars. "I wish I had a boy," her mother laments. "He could work and care for me." The girl accompanies her mother to the hospital where she secretly works. Surprisingly, women in the clinic work alongside men, wearing only a simple shawl to cover their hair. The women and men speak easily with one another. The woman attends to an old man's illness, talking to him, and touching him with familiar ease. Suddenly the Taliban arrive and the woman covers herself. The medical professional becomes a hooded non-person, an anonymous thing. When the Taliban demand to know how she got to the hospital, the patient's son tells them, "She came with me. She is my wife." To be caught out in such a lie could mean death, yet the man bravely takes the woman and her daughter home on his bicycle.
In a desperate attempt to deal with the situation, the mother tells the girl to cut her hair and pretend to be a boy so she can work for the family. The mother can no longer risk going to work. The girl's name is now Osama. The girl cries imploringly, "The Taliban will kill me." She knows too well the Taliban's deadly methods, as well of its penchant for rape and molestationl.
Osama is a film of passion, humanity, and clear moral vision. Barmak tackles the worst of Afghan culture and shows us that despite the horror and oppression, most of his countrymen and women are decent, hardworking people.Why Arab films are worth watching
Osama is just one of a number of Arab films worth watching. I was recently reminded of this at the Seattle Arab & Iranian Film Festival, held near where I live.
Many American filmgoers have delighted in the Iranian films, The White Balloon and Children of Heaven, which although not overtly political, address issues of poverty and ethnic discrimination in contemporary Iran. In these films, children are the protagonists and they are portrayed lovingly. Their fears and aspirations, though childish, are taken seriously. What many do not know is that much of the funding for these delightful films comes from the Iranian government. A ministry for the well-being of children decided that good movies for families deserved financial support. While most Americans remember an Iranian government that held American hostages for over a year, that government has shown more interest in children's films than its American counterparts.
When my students finish viewing a foreign film I ask them, "How would you present the gospel to this particular culture? What are their deepest unmet needs? In what arenas would the Good News be good news, indeed?" It's not hard to imagine the impact of the gospel on the women of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, conversion to a faith other than Islam can result in death.
As with the British Empire, the sun never sets on the Muslim world. It reaches from Indonesia, to Africa to Britain to Detroit. Muslim and Middle Eastern cultures are as varied as are European and Christian cultures. One of the greatest ideas of Christianity, and one of the hardest to follow, is to refrain from judging others. Great films like Osama, thoughtfully considered, give us the ability to withhold blanket judgments and come that much closer to the truth.
• Films from Muslim countries can be difficult to find, but they are out there. Most large cities have at least one video store that features international films. You can also buy a number of Arab films here.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- If you were raised your whole life wearing a veil everywhere you went in public, how would you react to suddenly being "unveiled"? Would you find it threatening, or even immoral?
- Does the Mullah believe he is helping Osama, or is he just being cynical? Does he actually believe that he is showing mercy?
- What evidence do we see that suggests that many people dislike or even hate the Taliban? Do you think a person could have a thoughtful discussion with the Taliban as portrayed in the movie?
- Muslims, Christians and Jews share the first five books of the Bible. In the Middle Ages, Jews were usually safer in Muslim countries than in Christian ones. What has changed to make so many Muslims hate Christians and Jews?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
There is no explicit violence or sex; the worst excesses are foreshadowed or done off camera. But because Taliban "justice" is so depraved and merciless, Osama is inappropriate for young girls. It is psychologically brutal. Young girls under Taliban control have no power to defend themselves, and the film makes no attempt to soften this cruel reality. Osama is an important, potentially life-changing film, but parents should see it themselves before taking young teenagers.
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