DVD Review HTF Review: Osama

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Jason Perez, Apr 8, 2004.

  1. Jason Perez

    Jason Perez Second Unit

    Jul 6, 2003
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    Studio: MGM
    Year: 2003
    Rated: PG-13
    Film Length: 83 minutes
    Aspect Ratio: 16x9 Enhanced Widescreen (1.85:1)
    Subtitles: English (forced)
    Audio: Pashtu – Monaural

    Release Date:
    April 27th, 2004

    Though its title will undoubtedly cause many people to think of the western world’s most wanted man, Osama’s titular character could not be more different than the inhuman terrorist mastermind that shares the name. Indeed, Siddiq Barmak’s haunting film chronicles the frightening journey of a young girl whose entire world was shaken up when the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan and imposed their unrelentingly fundamental interpretation of Islam on its people.

    As Osama opens, we meet a woman (Zubaida Sahar) and her 12-year old daughter (Marina Golbahari), who lost their jobs when the tiny hospital they were working at was closed by the Taliban and now have no source of income. Despite their plight, the women are not permitted allowed to leave their home – even to earn a living - unless they are accompanied by a male relative. Since their husband/father has passed away, and no other qualifying males are available, the women are prisoners in their own residence. Sadly, violating this law was punishable by death, even in a case like this, where the males in the family have died!

    Fearing they will slowly starve to death, the youth’s grandmother (who also lives in the home) devises a plan to disguise her as a boy, in order for her to obtain work and serve as an escort. As you might imagine, the plan is fraught with danger, since the Taliban were known to take quick and merciless action against those who violated their mandates. However, since this deceptive plan is their only hope for survival, the ladies prepare our youthful heroine by cutting her hair and dressing her in her father’s clothes.

    Once the transformation is complete, the girl’s mother pleads with a man who fought alongside of her deceased husband to hire the little girl as an assistant. Though reluctant, he eventually agrees, and tries to help the young lady act more like a man, so she can avoid detection for as long as possible. Unfortunately, things soon take a turn for the worse, when the “lad” is taken from her job by religious police and sent to Madrassa, a center used by the Taliban for religious indoctrination and military training.

    As one might expect, when put into this environment with a group of young males, it is not long before the Taliban authorities become suspicious of the girl. Happily, before her secret is revealed, a boy named Espandi (Arif Herati) comes to her aid, and gives her the name “Osama”. Of course, Espandi cannot hide this secret indefinitely; only buy Osama some more time. Given her slight feminine features and high voice, the girl just does not fit in with the boys in her class. Further, the difficulty she has in climbing trees, and her refusal to take part in a ritual bathing ceremony, make it seem inevitable that Osama's ruse is doomed to fail. And since Barmak has already given the viewer a taste of the Taliban’s cruelty, he is able to ratchet up the tension and maintain a constant sense of fear that the young girl will be discovered and brutally killed. Sorry, I can’t say anymore about the story, as watching this film without spoilers is an experience I don’t want to deprive you of.

    Moving on, though I would not put Siddiq Barmak’s Osama in quite the same league as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, the former is told in the same unflinching way. Mr. Barmak uses celluloid to paint a very clear picture of the horror experienced by those living under Taliban rule, by showing the unemotional way they execute a journalist dubbed an “infidel” for capturing their atrocities on film. In the same sequence, he shows a foreign female doctor being stoned to death and buried for “advocating profanity”; when all she really did was administer treatment to those in her care. Finally, Barmak shows how the Taliban yanked all young males from their homes and families to become part of their military regime.

    Now, to keep the audience from being beaten into complete submission, Siddiq Barmak does infuse a few moments of humanity and hope into Osama, such as when the girl is taken in by her father’s former friend, or when she plants a braid of hair trimmed from her head into a flowerpot and waters it. The main theme, however, is to depict the harsh realities of life under Taliban rule, especially for women, and in this regard, Barmak is extremely successful. The sensation of sheer terror felt by the youthful protagonist, who we know only as Osama, the name given to her by Espandi, is constantly on display as she first tries to pass herself of as her mother's son. This fear becomes multiplied exponentially, almost to the point of palpability, when Osama is forced into the Madrassa, and must live each moment with the horrible thought that she will be found out and liquidated.

    This storyline, which is based on true stories, is certainly gripping enough to recommend a viewing on its own, but what is truly remarkable is Barmak’s attention to detail, when it comes to the Afghan culture. His descriptions of the Afghan people’s customs, and about how everyday life was lived by its people - both before and during Taliban rule - adds a real sense of depth and realism to the picture. Indeed, it is Barmak’s careful direction and the stark realism of this film that at once makes this film both powerful and hard to sit through.

    To be sure, Osama is not a film without flaws, especially in terms of its stylistic elements. Generally, the acting is superb, but since the majority of the cast were not professionals, just locals from Kabul, there are moments that leave a little to be desired from a performance standpoint. In addition, some of the editing and camera work is a little less than precise.

    You know what though? In reflecting on this, none of it matters. Really, the only reason I brought it up at all is to say that Osama’s content, and the things the filmmaking team did right, is far more powerful and important than any of the minor technical distractions caused by its relatively inexperienced cast and crew, or the lack of a multi-million dollar budget and high tech equipment. On a side note, in addition to being Siddiq Barmak’s first feature-length work, Osama was the first film made in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.

    Lastly, in turning to the caliber of the performance of Marina Golbahari, who was found on the street (like many of the other cast members), I am left without words for description. Her riveting portrayal of Osama is nearly perfect in every respect, not to mention laden with subtlety and dignity. It is truly amazing how the viewer can discern her every thought and feeling almost without her having to speak a single word, as she is able to evoke the gamut of human emotion with just the expression of her face. This is a performance well beyond her years, and my hat goes off to her!

    Without question, it is extremely tough to witness a child being subjected to such mental anguish, but the effectiveness of the messages imparted by the film are reliant upon it. Moreover, as painful as the lives of the characters in this film seem to be, it does not take much to imagine that the real suffering endured by Afghan women and girls was much worse. In closing, I believe that if you have the slightest interest in world affairs, and don’t mind seeing a really sad (but very worthwhile) story, you should free up 83 minutes to watch Osama, a poignant, unflinching tale that heartily deserved the Golden Globe® it was awarded for Best Foreign Film.

    Considering that this film was made for a pittance (less than $50,000), Osama, which is offered in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) by MGM, looks much better than it should. This transfer renders the source material in a crisp, bright manner, with adequately saturated colors, and fairly accurate skin tones. Fine detail, evident in the battle-scarred nature of the terrain and the texture of the Afghan garments, is also impressive. Even more impressive is the apparent lack of edge enhancement!

    Unfortunately, there are some negative aspects of this release’s image quality to discuss. The biggest problem is the appearance of a fair amount of video noise in sequences set at night, or in dimly lit environments, although I am more inclined to lay the blame for this on the ineffectual lighting methods employed during filming than the transfer process. Whatever the cause, however, black level fluctuates, with shadow detail being swallowed up in some sequences and the image appearing washed out in others. Further, a moderate number of specks and other print flaws pop up throughout the film, which exposes its miniscule budget to a greater degree than other aspects of the image.

    Still, despite the issues I have mentioned in the preceding paragraph, I think that Osama looks outstanding given the relative inexperience of the filmmakers and the extremely limited financial resources they had to work with. Good job MGM!

    If there is one thing that Osama’s monaural Pashtu audio track (with mandatory English subtitles) proves, it is that MGM can’t fix everything. In all seriousness, this is probably the worst monaural experience I have ever had. Simply put, the soundstage is so narrow that it seems as if all of the film’s audio information is being broadcast through the center channel.

    Even worse, the sound being emitted from this speaker was quite frequently weak and difficult to hear. Not that I have the ability to understand Pashtu, but I consider this unacceptable, because even if I did, it would have been hard to discern what the characters were saying during some scenes. The track also exhibits almost no ambience, and frequency response is not particularly good, with the high frequencies sounding rolled off and bass response being anemic. Much like the video quality, I think the budget of the film, recording equipment utilized, and recording techniques employed have to be considered, but even in doing so, I found this track to be quite a disappointment.


    Sharing Peace and Freedom: An Interview With Siddiq Barmak
    “Sharing Peace and Freedom” is a 22-minute interview with director/writer/editor Siddiq Barmak, who begins by revealing how he became intensely interested in film after seeing Lawrence of Arabia. He then discusses his past a bit, including how he was educated in the art of cinema in Russia, before moving on to talk about this film.

    Subsequently, Barmak talks about his film, including its genesis, and the generosity of those who helped finance and make it. He also discusses the reasoning behind using “non-professional” actors in Osama, and the techniques he employed to garner genuine reactions from them. Finally, he offers some hopeful comments about the future of cinema in Afghanistan.

    Overall, I found Mr. Barmak to be pleasant and engaging, and his passion for filmmaking is admirable. Unfortunately, scenes from the film continually interrupt this interview. On occasion, this serves a purpose because Barmak is referring to a particular sequence, but generally it is just a nuisance, and it makes the interview more difficult to watch than it should be.

    Trailers and Promotional Materials
    The theatrical trailer for Osama is included, as are trailers for Camp, Pieces of April, Casa de los Babys, Bubba Ho-Tep, and Touching the Void, as well as the cover art for five MGM releases.


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    Siddiq Barmak’s Osama is a powerful film that gives viewers a glimpse at the fear and terror the Afghan people lived in under the Taliban through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl. While it can be unsettling at times, and it is not the most technically polished movie, its messages are worthwhile. Thus, even though the DVD is quite light on extras, and the audio quality is poor, the visuals are surprisingly good (considering the $ spent and equipment used), and this film itself is a must-see for anyone whose interest is aroused by the events that transpire in other parts of the world. Recommended!!!

    Stay tuned…
  2. Ronald Epstein

    Ronald Epstein Founder

    Jul 3, 1997
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    Ronald Epstein

    Outstanding review. I read it in its entirety
    with the utmost interest to its subject matter.

    I am going to watch this one ASAP.
  3. ThomasC

    ThomasC Lead Actor

    Dec 15, 2001
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    Thanks for the review, Jason. The trailer and the nominations got me interested and I look forward to seeing it.

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