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Afghanistan: Filmmaker Brings Nation's Story To Afghans And The World

By Andrea Boyle

Afghanistan is not known for its film industry, having produced just 40 films in its history. But one Afghan film director, Siddiq Barmak, hopes to change that. Barmak's most recent film, the first out of Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, has received top honors and will soon be released worldwide. RFE/RL spoke with Barmak about his film and his country's hopes for the future.

Prague, 10 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It was the talk of Montreal, London, and Cannes, a name that usually induces feelings of fear and hatred: Osama.

Yet, at those cities' annual film festivals, "Osama," the title of a film by director Siddiq Barmak, was greeted with praise.

"Osama" is the story of an Afghan family of nearly all females who are left to fend for themselves during the Taliban era after the death of their father and an uncle. The mother and grandmother of the clan force the main character, a 12-year-old girl, to dress as a boy in order to get a job and make money for the family.

The title comes from the name the girl uses in her double life as a boy. The child is the only person addressed in the film by name. Barmak says this loss of identity is symbolic of Afghans losing their personal identities as well as their cultural and national ones under the repressive rule of the Taliban.

"My film was about horror," he said. "The whole atmosphere of the film is [about being scared], so who is behind all of this? Who is behind all this loss? Osama."

"Osama" is Barmak's first feature-length film. He gained experience directing short films and from 1992-96 headed the government agency in charge of cinema.

With the arrival of the Taliban, Barmak lost his job and fled the country in 1998, seeking asylum in Pakistan. He returned home in 2002, assuming his old job and beginning work on "Osama."

For the film, Barmak cast nonprofessional actors from orphanages and refugee camps. Such people, he says, are better able to portray the feelings of the average Afghan. "They were very natural. They left me with a lot of impressions during the shooting and they made a lot of improvisation because they were real people that could feel this situation," he said. "Especially the little girl who played the main character -- she saw a lot of suffering, and she was a witness to a lot of tragedies."

The little girl he speaks of is Marina Golbahari, who Barmak found begging in the streets of Kabul. The Taliban arrested Golbahari's father numerous times, her sister was killed in a rocket attack, and her remaining 11 brothers and sisters were left destitute.

At the time she was cast in "Osama," Golbahari had never seen a film before. Barmak says he believes she was able to play the role so well because her own experiences were so close to the movie's storyline. Golbahari is now attending school and has told Barmak she hopes to continue acting.

When Barmak screened the film in Afghanistan, several audience members approached him to say how closely the bleak film mirrored their own experiences. "They told me a lot of things -- that they saw their own face, that they saw their own history and now they're feeling very deeply their own pain, because they never thought about it before," he said.

The original ending to the film was a happy one. After the Taliban exposes Osama's true gender, her only way to avoid death by stoning is to become the fourth wife of an elderly mullah. Originally, Barmak showed the girl escaping.

But then, he says, he decided the "happily ever after" ending was too naive. Out of respect for the audience, for whom such an escape was not an option, he drew the film to a bleaker end.

Barmak says he did not expect such a warm reception from an Afghan audience, considering the painfully familiar story. Afghan audiences, he says, tend to favor "Bollywood" musicals and more upbeat productions. But he says the enthusiastic response to "Osama" is one of many signs that Afghans may be growing more optimistic about their future.

The response from the West was similarly rewarding. "Osama" won special mention at the Cannes Film Festival in May, as well as the main prize at Montreal's New Movie and New Media Festival in October. In November, Barmak picked up the London Film Festival's Sutherland Trophy for the most original and imaginative movie at the event.

The U.S. film company United Artists picked up the film for distribution. It will begin screening in mid-January across Europe and the U.S.

The message of the film, Barmak says, is universal. "This message is not only for Afghan audiences. This, the message, was to the world, because I thought that this was not only an Afghan tragedy. It was not a story that belongs to Afghans. It can happen anywhere, by extremism, by fundamentalism," he said.

Barmak says he will not tackle such a weighty topic for his next project. This time around, he is working on a comedy because he wants to see laughter on the faces of his countrymen.