Barmak's story, about a young girl (Marina Golbarhari) who attempts to pass as a boy in order to earn money for her starving family, is allegorical: His protagonist is one Afghan girl and every Afghan girl. In this case, the girl is an only child. She has lost her father (a freedom fighter who died after 14 years of battling the Russian occupation), and her mother, a nurse, is no longer permitted to work. Her grandmother, a loving woman full of stories, is equally helpless. The family has no way to feed itself -- until the grandmother remembers an old folk tale about a boy who wanted to be a girl. With little fanfare (and seemingly no acknowledgment of the stakes), she suggests that they dress the granddaughter as a boy and send her out to work.
The granddaughter is frightened and unwilling. She knows that she will be killed if she's caught, and she cries in desperate protest. In fact, she weeps through most of the film, even when it is to her distinct disadvantage. In a striking antidote to the Hollywood version of the child-as-family-savior story, she never screws her courage to the sticking place. She never grows bold or brash, never lowers her voice, affects a swagger, or learns to push and shove on the playground. Instead, she is always tender and vulnerable and on the brink of collapse. The open-faced Golbarhari is stunning.
Though it has a certain loveliness, the unforgiving Osama is not easy to watch. Just when a less honest film would provide relief in the form of a pleasant scene or interaction, this one twists the knife a little deeper into the gut. The girl works for a short time for a grocer, but her employer leaves for Pakistan. Eventually, she's forced to attend a religious-military school (there is talk of being trained to serve Osama bin Laden). From there, things get really bad.
In an unsparing portrait of a bleak and miserable existence, Barmak offers small gifts of visual beauty. At a women's protest march, a river of blue burkhas ripples through the town, and in one gorgeous moment, "Osama" wipes a stick figure of a girl in the condensation of a shop window, then watches through the clear lines of the girl as members of the Taliban thunder past.
Barmak's work is uniformly patient; he stays with the terror, misery and desolation as much as he stays with the beauty. A shot of a crowd fleeing a hospital to avoid the Taliban is unforgettable. At the tail end of this crowd, hobbling with painstaking care, is a crippled child. Nobody stops to wait for him, and nobody helps him. Instead, Barmak's camera observes as the boy clops one foot and drags the other, always moving, always behind.
Once in a while, Osama lapses with a slightly clunky shot or music that's not quite right for the scene. And though it could be read as nothing but real, Golbarhari's performance has essentially one note. For the most part, though, the film is a miracle of accomplishment, elegant, bold and artful in a world devoid of resources. One look at the bombed-out buildings and barren landscape of the town where the movie was filmed, and you'll wonder how Barmak managed to pull it off.