Afghanistan: Osama

(2003; dir: Siddiq Barmak; language: Dari Persian; original title: اسامه; co-production with Iran, Ireland, Japan and the Netherlands)

Osama is set in Afghanistan’s capital city Kabul, and gets off to a captivating start with a large group of women dressed in identical sky-blue burkas who are bravely protesting the Taliban. In particular, they are protesting the prohibition of women working – a prohibition that means that many women, especially widows, are unable to feed themselves and their families. Watching the protest and its violent dispersal by Taliban forces is a young girl and her widowed mother. The mother is a nurse at the local hospital, but when the hospital is forced to close due to the removal of funding, and the Taliban requirements for women to be escorted by a male at all times makes even finding under-the-table jobs difficult, the mother finds herself out of work and out of options. Despairing, she and her elderly mother decide that the only way to save their little family from starvation is to disguise the young girl (Marina Golbahari), their only child/grandchild, as a boy and send “him” to work. Their plans go quickly awry when the girl, in her guise as the boy “Osama”, is rounded up with the other boys her age and sent to a Taliban-run school for religious and military indoctrination. Spoilers follow.

I chose Osama because, well, there weren’t a whole lot of options. The film’s wikipedia page touts it as being the first film to be shot entirely in Afghanistan since the Taliban shut down the film industry in 1996. It has also been really well-reviewed, winning a Golden Globe and prizes at a range of festivals.

The story Osama tells is a litany of suffering – an oppressed people terrorised by the Taliban, where women and girls in particular suffer under strict regulations that must be followed on pain of death or sexual slavery. And yet these regulations also make their lives unlivable. So in a sense Osama is about the choices people make when the only choice is that between the rock or the hard place. Even if the decision the mother and grandmother made could be seen (rightly) as a terribly risky and unfair one, at least the film allows them to make a decision, and acknowledges that they have minds, creativity and wills of their own. On the other hand, the film’s main character is the girl, and she is given little to no opportunities for decision-making throughout the film. She is forced by her mother and grandmother into posing as boy, forced by the Taliban into their school, she is punished, abused, and sold into sexual slavery. Indeed one of the few explicit choices she is given is which of the ostentatious and forbidding padlocks her new “husband” (read: rapist slave owner) will use to lock her up – an obscene “choice” which she is naturally unable to make.

I have to say, I found the grinding horror of ‘Osama’s fate a bit difficult to take when it took over from any character development. To a large extent she remained a terrified child whose expressive eyes reflected only animal fear. As reviewer Christopher Orr writes at the Atlantic:

Barmak’s protagonist truly is helpless, in a way that films rarely have the courage to convey. This is no wishful feminist parable about a strong-willed young woman facing tough odds. “Osama” is a weak, confused, foolish girl, a pawn not only of the Taliban but of her mother and grandmother as well. She passively watches her life unfold as if she were outside of it, but with a constant fear in her eyes that shows she knows she’s not.

Unlike Orr, I didn’t see ‘Osama’ as foolish – and only as weak and confused as any child would be in that situation. Indeed, for me the best part of the entire film was a scene where, clichéd as the situation was, ‘Osama’ is expected to undress in order to participate in a lesson in ritual genital washing with a repulsive Taliban mullah. She manages to outwit him and preserve her boyish facade, and the mixture of relief and satisfaction in her own ingenuity that floods the girl’s face was a testament to the actress’s ability to portray more than raw fear. Unfortunately, this the only chance she was given. Now of course having ‘Osama’ constantly consumed by fear is probably quite realistic for the someone in her circumstances. But if the audience only ever sees this side of her, it is hard to sympathise with her as a whole person. Unlike Orr, I don’t see films that allow their female characters agency as “wishful feminist parables” – rather I see them as realistic portrayals of human beings who attempt various strategies to navigate their lives. This is something that the previously reviewed Hollow City did well, starring a three-dimensional child protagonist who although confused and vulnerable was never reduced to his trauma. This made his end feel like a punch in the gut, whereas ‘Osama’s fate simply felt inevitable from the get-go.

The other issue with making a film about all-encompassing victimisation is that it invites a saviour. In the case of Osama, none is forthcoming within the film – leaving a narrative space open to be filled by the viewer. This ties in with another aspect of the film that I had some problems with, namely its clear courting of international audiences. This isn’t something that necessarily has to be a problem – lots of films from small local industries know that whether or not their film gets made and distributed might depend on its international marketability, and indeed Osama was funded as a co-production with international partners who undoubtedly wanted some kind of return. And I certainly don’t have pretensions of being anything other than a member of an international audience. But what bothered me about Osama was the way it was courting international audiences: released at a time when the Taliban’s abominable treatment of Afghani women was used as a justification for yet another invasion of the geopolitically significant country – this time by the US and NATO – resulting in devastating civilian casualities. Although no mention is made of the invasion in the film – it being set pre-2001 – this silence and the context of its release means that it reinforces an idea that the war was justified to ‘stop the Taliban’. Especially as the women in the film are presented as hopelessly victimised an incapable of resistance themselves. This stands in contrast to statements from the human rights prize-winning organisation Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), who strongly oppose both the Taliban and the US/NATO invasion, and argue that the invasion stands in the way of a democratic uprising of Afghanis against the Taliban.

Just like the actress, Afghanistan itself is infantilised in the film, or at least rendered in a way that invites an international saviour.  Despite being filmed on location in Kabul, signs of ‘civilisation’ are nigh on non-existent. Buildings, shops, and tools look more rustic than in the previously reviewed 1970s Algerian film Chronicle of the Years of Fire. As reviewer for the Guardian James Meek explains, this effect was achieved by filming on the outskirts of Kabul:

In the film, Barmak strips out the clutter of semi-modernity, the cars and shop signs and street traders with which central Kabul seethed under the Taliban, as now. Among the dust and ruins of the outskirts, characters and objects take on an elemental, fabular quality, like the great heavy scissors with which the heroine’s hair is cut.

This excision of signs of “semi-modernity” also makes Afghanistan seem more exotically vulnerable, primitive and in need of assistance from ‘developed’ nations. And just in case foreign viewers were in any doubt that the Taliban were bad, the trial of our girl ‘Osama’ is held concurrently with that of two white Westerners – a journalist and a nurse – who are condemned to death and executed! This also felt like a cynical attempt to draw in a Western audiences, as though they could identify with these crimes in a different way than with the magnetic performance of Golbahari. Even the name given to the girl’s male persona seemed like audience-bait rather than any kind of meaningful symbolism.

Concerning to me also was the way that the film at times seemed to not only portray sexism, but also perpetrate it. Perhaps most worryingly, none of the female characters have names, not even the main character until she is given a male one. In contrast, most of the men referred to in the film, including those who are never seen, are named. This could be a statement on the part of the film-maker about women’s erasure from Taliban-controlled Afghani society. But taken together with other aspects of the film I began to wonder… For example, the film often seemed to place the blame on the women’s exclusion from society on the women themselves: the (un-named) girl’s (un-named) mother lamented “why did God create women?”, “why did I have a daughter and not a son?”, bemoaning women’s gender as a burden rather than raging against the regime that made it so. (I got excited when the grandmother countered with: “No, women and men are equal”, but then she followed it up with: “They suffer equally.” Sure, many Afghani men went off to war and died, while many women stayed home and died, but I didn’t see any young boys in the film being sold off into sexual slavery.) But perhaps my biggest disappointment on this count was the way that ‘Osama’s true gender was revealed – she got her period. A common trope of women dressing up as men to avoid oppression is that they are betrayed by their unruly female bodies – breasts, pregnancies or periods bursting out at an inopportune moment; this again places the blame on women’s bodies for their exclusion from the male norm, something which fits into rather than challenges the conservative and misogynistic systems that establish those norms.

Again, perhaps this was also some nuanced symbolism on the part of the director/writer, but reading an interview with the director reinforced my doubts. Despite Golbahari’s performance carrying the whole film, and the film’s international success, she was paid about £7 a day, a salary that was soon spent. The director’s version of how he found his lead actress was that she was begging on the streets and he “looked down and saw Marina. ‘Her face was amazing. I was shocked when I saw the eyes,’ he said. ‘I decided that this was the main character. She was surprised by the word ‘film’. She asked, “Uncle, what’s a film?” She told me she’d never seen a film and never watched TV.'” Her version: “Marina says it is not true she was begging when Barmak met her, or that she had never seen a film before. She’s glad she made the film, but doesn’t like the way she is turned into a boy in it. Life, she says, is better than it was before, but not as good as she had hoped.” These conflicting stories, where the director represents Golbahari as more ignorant and victimised than in her version, as well as the poor level of remuneration, do not convince me that the director is above objectifying or exploiting women and girls.

In many ways the problems I found with the film and its reception remind me of another famous Afghan girl – a person known simply as the subject of Steve McCurry’s photograph Afghan Girl which appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985, until she was identified as Sharbat Gula in 2002. Like Gula, Golbahari’s stunning eyes have captivated international audiences and become symbolic for Afghani suffering. Their respective photographer/director have made names for themselves internationally while the two girls are largely left to continued suffering. To me, this suggests a problem not only with the conflicts and powers that have caused this suffering, but also with the international consumption of it.

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Belize: Three Kings of Belize

(2007; dir: Katia Paradis; language: English, with some songs in Garifuna; alternative title: Trois Rois)

Three Kings of Belize is a documentary by Katia Paradis, who describes herself as a citizen of both Canada and Belize. The film lovingly depicts the daily life and music of three aged Belize men who are all renowned local musicians. Paul Nabor is a fisherman, guitarist and Garifuna composer, who self-avowedly loves the guitar he has been playing for 53 years more than any of the women who have come and gone in his life. Florencio Mess is a Mayan harp player who lives off the land in his small village and makes traditional violins, guitars and harps. Wilfred Peters, MBE (after playing for the Queen of England), plays Creole accordion and is still travelling with his music around Central and North America.

To explain why I chose this film, allow to digress a little… I have been endeavouring thus far in the project to find fictional feature-length films directed by locals and filmed on location. The reasons for the latter criteria are fairly obvious, but my preference for fictional and feature-length films perhaps warrants some explanation. Basically, one of the reasons I started this project was because I realised that most of the stories I was being told by the films I watched were from the US or the UK, and that even if they were set in other countries it was still Americans or Brits that were making most of the decisions. I am and always have been a believer in the power of stories to expand people’s horizons, reveal insights into oneself and others, and establish empathy. This is not to say that documentaries cannot do these things, nor that they don’t tell stories, but for me personally I find fiction often does these things better – it somehow allows me to ‘be’ or ‘feel’ another person in a way that non-fiction doesn’t. Furthermore, who has the power to tell their stories is a political issue; I have seen several documentaries made by locals of countries other than the US and Western Europe, often depicting the oppression of the local population, but astonishingly few fictional feature films from these places. There could be several reasons for this discrepancy – it would probably look different if I had more disposable time and income to attend film festivals, for instance – but for me it also says something about a tendency for the cultures I live in to be more comfortable watching/funding/distributing a studied foreign population, and preferably a suffering one, than making space for their stories. The former perhaps making it easier to objectify them or distance oneself from them, rather than actually having to be them. In any case, I wanted to seek out fictional feature-length films where possible.

This didn’t turn out to be so easy in the case of Belize. Belize is a small country, both geographically and demographically (current population is a little over 300,000), and has only been independent from Britain since 1981, so there wasn’t a whole lot of locally-produced films to choose from. I found one, Stranded N Dangriga, whose trailer made it look so awful (think along the lines of an Adam Sandler or Eddie Murphy vehicle) that I didn’t think I could bring myself to sit through it – a cop out perhaps. In the end I decided that Three Kings of Belize, while a documentary, and while funded and produced by Canadians, was at least directed by a citizen of Belize and intimately connected to the evolving cultures of Belize. And it was in all likelihood more to my taste.

So, onto the review! The film is essentially a slow, sensitive and non-intrusive portrait of the three men as they discuss their music and careers, perform at home or in public, talk about their lives and their philosophies, and go about their daily tasks. Director Paradis lets them and their music do the talking, occasionally cutting away to shots of the men’s surroundings – everything from long shots of achingly blue seascapes to close ups on the flora and fauna of Belize. Where the panoramic shots of Azerbaijan’s countryside in the previously reviewed Buta felt in some ways like egregious tourist-bait, in Three Kings of Belize the combination of these shots with the grounded love the three musicians expressed for their land established instead a powerful sense of place and the strength it can provide. It reminded me of a concept from my home country, tūrangawaewae, which is often translated from Māori as “a place to stand”: “Tūrangawaewae are places where we feel especially empowered and connected. They are our foundation, our place in the world, our home,” (source: Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of Aotearoa New Zealand). Without claiming interpretative power over this concept, it seemed to me that Belize was tūrangawaewae for the three musicians, and that the film did a good job of expressing this to the viewer. While some might find the sleepy pace of the film a little slow, I think it was integral to allowing these older guys present themselves and their place in their own time and manner. It was also perfect viewing for the stickily-hot lazy Saturday morning when I watched it.

What gives the film poignancy, and lifts it beyond just being an exposition of some great tunes and three characterful old dudes, are the men’s ruminations on their old age and the changes in both music and Belize society. In different ways all three discuss their attempts to make a career out of music, highlighting music as a form of labour (rather than only a passion) and the decreasing value placed on their music. This is partly to do with a decline in the popularity of their respective genres – “some people say my band is an old people’s band… but I go places they don’t go!” – but also to do with changes in the way music is produced and consumed. Nabor, who has composed so many songs that he now doesn’t remember most of them until he hears someone else playing one, muses sadly that people now want to hear music from cassettes rather than directly from him – a distancing that he isn’t in favour of. One striking scene shows Peters gamely dancing along at his 75th birthday party to a modern song whose lyrics seem to consist of “shake it”; the contrast between old and young can’t be more distinct.

Furthermore, although each of the three men are renowned musicians, none of them are materially well-off. Peters, the more urban of the three, still travels internationally and performs at festivals with his accordion, but complains of having a “big name, small pocket”. Nabor and Mess live quiet rural lives where they are more or less self-sufficient. Mess shows off his organic gardening, and Nabor in his simple bush cabin fishes doggedly for his supper despite his old age. Again, this seems connected to their perspectives on Belize. The country is ‘modernizing’, and according to Mess many Belizeans are seeking unattractive jobs in order to buy things in the store – something he sees as redundant when those with knowledge can live off the land.

But perhaps more importantly the film highlights the important labour that these musicians conduct – preserving and enriching, as well as exporting, Belizean cultural forms. And labour it is – the musicians have devoted their lives to, and in some cases sacrificed their health for, their music. Whether one sees the commercialisation of music as a good thing or prefer a time when it had intrinsic value rewarded by gifts of money and food (as both Mess and Nabor experienced in their youth), I challenge anybody to watch this film and not mourn the fact that their labour is no longer valued to the extent it is due. However, the film does finish on a note of hope in this regard. Towards the end of a film Peters is greeted on the street by an avid young female fan, and the final scene shows two of the musicians making music together while small children join in on a chorus with the words “they must have a band at my funeral”.

As can be inferred from this post, Three Kings of Belize provided a wealth of impressions of Belize in terms of its gorgeous rural seascapes, flora and fauna, as well as lively urban milieux. I also learned about some of the social changes taking place in the country, and a lot about three fantastic local music traditions. One thing I would like to have learned more about was women in Belize; although directed by a woman, this film – like many of the others reviewed here – was dominated by men’s voices. One of the musicians fondly recalls his wife, who was “given to him” by her father. She was 13 at the time, and he was in his 20s, and their first child was born before she turned 14. While the musician recounts this as a romantic story, I couldn’t help wondering how his child-bride experienced it, something the viewer never got to know. Neither do we hear from the woman who appears in the film cooking for Peters – his wife? – or any of the women whom Nabor has prioritised his guitar over.

Czech Republic: Closely Observed Trains

(1966; dir: Jiří Menzel; language: Czech, German; original title: Ostře sledované vlaky – also released in English as Closely Watched Trains)

Closely Observed Trains is based on Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal’s novel of the same name, and follows the awakening of Miloš (Václav Neckář), a young man who starts work at a provincial railway station during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Coming from a family famous for slackers, and more or less proud of it, Miloš starts training as a signalman at the village railway station – his dream job with regard to the minimal effort involved. There he meets the station-master (Vladimír Valenta), a married (and sexually frustrated) pigeon-enthusiast who dreams of promotion, and the womanizing train dispatcher Hubička (Josef Somr). He also has ample chance to exchange longing glances and near kisses with the attractively pant-suited young conductor Máša (Jitka Bendová). While Miloš deals with raging hormones and sexual performance anxiety, the Nazi occupation causes trouble behind the scenes, until a sexy German resistance agent awakens Miloš in more ways than one. As usual, spoilers follow.

I chose Closely Observed Trains as it is probably the most internationally well-known and loved Czech film ever, winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. Produced in then Czechoslovakia, the film is considered a classic of the Czech New Wave.

On one level the film is simply an amusing coming-of-age comedy with over-the-top male characters and a parade of objectified women (although I did approve of all the women in gorgeous 1940s trousers). But the real substance of the film is the juxtaposition of the parochial and often ridiculous personal obsessions of the main characters with the background Nazi occupation and its associated horrors. The film cleverly draws parallels between the two, often visually, to remind the viewer that there are more devastating forces at work in its protagonist’s lives than premature ejaculation and professional or sexual frustration.

Commentary seems to suggest that this aspect of the film is very Czech; that the very disregard in which the central characters hold the Nazi occupation works as a form of subversion. The subversive strength of this non-response can be seen in a scene where the officious Quisling inspector is effectively deflated by the central characters’ total lack of interest in his enthusiasm for the Nazis. In Richard Schickel’s essay for the Criterion collection, he relates Closely Observed Trains to the Czech national epic – Jaroslav Hašek’s satirical anti-war novel The Good Soldier Švejk:

We were frequently told that Svejk’s sly subversions of the warrior mentality represented the best that a small, geopolitically unfavored nation could offer in the way of resistance to its surrounding bullies, and we were glad to see that the work of a new generation of filmmakers—their attitudes formed during the Nazi Occupation of World War II, sharpened by the Stalinist dictatorship of the post-war period—confirmed the novel’s continuing relevance. The portrait of Czechoslovakia we pieced together from its films of the 1960s was of what we might now call a slacker nirvana, a place where private problems always took precedence over public issues, where ideological pomp was ever subverted by the imp of the perverse.

And yet, this subtle resistance doesn’t seem to be enough; a scene in the middle of the film where Miloš is held at gunpoint by Nazis inserts a note of seriousness – forcing both Miloš and the viewer to remember the proximity and fatal consequences of the Nazi war machine. This, of course, foreshadows Miloš’s sudden and violent end – a consequence of taking action beyond subtle subversion?

What I thought the film did particularly well was the use of visual allusions to send up that which Nazism, and the Soviet occupation under which the film was produced, held dear – namely, authoritarianism and control through bureaucracy. Recurrent visual gags – including the famous scene where Hubička uses the station’s rubber stamps to seduce a nubile telegraphist, and the subsequent farce of a trial which distracts the inspector at a crucial moment – render ridiculous the Nazi propaganda and machinery that surrounds the characters, thus lessening some of its power. This is what Schickel refers to above as “ideological pomp… subverted by the imp of the perverse.” It is worth noting, too that the director paid for this satire – suffering blacklisting and censorship under the Soviet occupation soon after the release of the film.

While the visual dimensions of the film were witty and well-executed, particularly in their satire of bureaucracy and authority, I was less impressed by the narrative and the thematic connection it made between male sexual virility and political action. Miloš is allegedly impotent sexually, and definitely impotent politically, until resistance agent Viktoria Freie (Naďa Urbánková) turns up for one scene to deliver a bomb and, apparently inevitably, a fuck. Although we are informed that she is a resistance agent, and also – for added titillation – a circus performer, Viktoria is more of a cardboard cutout than any Bond-girl, serving only as a sexual tool to help the protagonist “man up”. Even Miloš’s would-be girlfriend, the “nice-girl” Máša, could as easily be a figment of Miloš’s torrid imagination as we never see her doing anything not related to wooing (and at the end, mourning) Miloš. This film was definitely a man’s story all the way, with the female characters neatly divided into willing sex objects or humorously past-it mother types.

Another aspect of the film that I reacted to is the film’s treatment of animal cruelty. References to and depictions of animal cruelty turned up at a few points throughout the film – and unsettlingly I’m not sure if the onscreen stuff is simulated or real (films should really carry content warnings for this kind of thing). Apparently the original novel is damning in its critique of animal abuse, but if this is the case it doesn’t translate to the film, or at least not in any way that made sense to me. The film’s characters speak with disgust about the German animal transports and the terrible abuses carried out on livestock; is this a reference to the Nazi transportation of Jews, Slavs, Romani and other victims of the Holocaust? Perhaps. But what does it mean then when we see in lingering close-up the station-master and his wife caring for the animals they raise, but also striking rabbits to death? Something about the ease with which the authorities can kill seemingly indiscriminately? Or, in a scene where Miloš is clumsily propositioning the station-master’s wife, should her stroking of a goose’s neck to force-feed it be read as sexual or violent, or both? The pieces didn’t quite add up for me, and I found them more jarring than meaningful.

In sum, Closely Watched Trains was a fun and visually clever send-up of authoritarianism with a distinctly Czech flavour and a sting in the tail. However, I personally found it rather distastefully sexist and a bit thematically muddled, particularly with regard to its treatment of animal abuse.

Shoutout: for those who enjoy surrealism I cannot recommend enough the work of Czech film-maker Jan Švankmajer. His films are not only visually innovative and fascinating, but they usually have something to say as well. With a body of work including short and full-length films going back to the 60s, he is well worth a look at.