Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Siddiq Barmak is on the phone from Los Angeles. It’s late January, and the director is still glowing after collecting a Golden Globe award for “Osama,” the first feature film to emerge from Afghanistan since the removal of the Taliban regime.

He searches for the right words to describe his elation that night. “To be in Los Angeles, among my favorite directors and actors … .” He ticks off names. Al Pacino. Angelina Jolie, too, for her campaign to increase cash flow and medical help to the world’s refugees, including those who fled Afghanistan.

“I saw that Hollywood wanted to pay attention to the Afghan people,” Mr. Barmak, 41, says.

Yet it wasn’t Al Pacino or Angelina Jolie or anyone from the American film industry who saw to it that “Osama,” a searing portrait of life under the Taliban (opening today in Washington exclusively at the CO Dupont 5), got off the ground.

Japanese and Irish companies co-produced it with Mr. Barmak. In the early going, German friends donated equipment, things such as dollies that were nonexistent in Afghanistan, Mr. Barmak says.

Along with material objects such as cameras and film projectors, the country’s cultural capital — writers, actors, musicians — had been eviscerated under radical Islamic rule. Its intelligentsia, to this day, is scattered all over the world.

The Taliban oppressors “were against cinema; they were against music,” he says. “It’s another religion — a religion of terror.”

Sought for arrest when the Taliban assumed control of the war-torn country in 1996, Mr. Barmak, a short-film director and documentarian who had also fought with the mujahedin during the Soviet occupation, escaped to northern Afghanistan, outside the reach of the clerics. Eventually, he and his family settled in Peshawar, Pakistan, a frontier town that served as a sort of makeshift Free French refuge for Afghans.

Even more important for “Osama” was the assistance of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the Iranian director of movies such as “Kandahar.” “I told him about my dream to make this film, and he was so moved by the story; he really wanted to help,” Mr. Barmak says. The Makhmalbaf Film House sent a technical team and troves of video copies of Afghan movies to Kabul to help the country revive its film industry. The Iranian filmmaker also raised $21,000 to help with the production; shooting began in March 2003.

With no actors to speak of, Mr. Barmak worked with a cast of nonprofessionals. He found Marina Golbahari, the young lead, in the Afghan capital of Kabul.

She was a street beggar.

In Los Angeles on the night of the Globes, Jan. 25, a hush fell over the International Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton as the director accepted the award for best foreign language film. Cameras panned to faces conspicuously pensive.

Did anyone notice the irony of the moment? A town full of antiwar sentiment silently congratulating itself for its concern for a man whose presence there was made possible by war?

To be sure, Hollywood’s inveterate pacifists didn’t oppose the invasion of Afghanistan like they did the war in Iraq; even Tim Robbins lent it half-throated support. And yet, they took no great interest in Afghanistan, either.

Sean Penn, whose idiocy knows no nuance, said that responding in kind to terrorist attacks was, at best, “temporary medicine.” If Mr. Penn’s influence extended beyond his splashy full-page newspaper manifestos, Siddiq Barmak would very likely still be in Peshawar, in exile.

Mr. Barmak was first inspired to write “Osama” when he read an account, published in a Pashto-language newspaper in Peshawar, of a young girl who’d been physically beaten by the Taliban for posing as a boy so she could attend school — an opportunity open only to males.

“Osama” follows a 12-year-old Afghan girl masquerading as a boy in a last-ditch effort to save her impoverished family. On returning to Kabul in 2001 and witnessing firsthand the city’s ruin — even worse than he’d imagined — Mr. Barmak tweaked the facts of the story, to reflect the priority of food over education: The girl’s father and uncle are dead, and the Taliban mullahs have forbidden women from appearing in public unaccompanied by men, or “legal companions.” Desperate and near starving, her mother appeals to a local grocer to give a job to her daughter, now shorn of hair and dressed as a boy.

It’s this theme that has Washington lapping up “Osama.” From Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York’s junior senator, to first lady Laura Bush, some of the most powerful women in town have embraced the movie, giving it resonance beyond Afghanistan’s borders.

“Osama,” as the movie’s title character is dubbed in a panic by a local villager covering for the ruse, has become symbolic of the struggle of women and girls in the developing world.

Don’t look now, but Washington is putting its money where its rhetoric is. The U.S. Labor Department, for example, channeled $6 million to Afghanistan through Vital Voices, a nonprofit global women’s rights organization.

Afghan girls are attending school now, and their mothers are free to walk the streets. “We’ve come a long way in two short years,” reported Said T. Jawad, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, at a recent reception for “Osama” at the Motion Picture Association of America headquarters.

Washington has been self-parodying about “Osama,” too. Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, actually said that under the country’s new constitution, “Afghan women have an equal rights amendment; we don’t.” Great, let’s all move there and have a pajama party.

Still, for once the political class has been way ahead of the culturati. From the invasion to Mrs. Bush’s trumpeting of Afghan women’s rights to the drafting of a new constitution, the U.S. government shares, in an important sense, credit for “Osama.” Hollywood joined the game late.

Staggeringly, Mr. Barmak himself doesn’t realize the source of his recent good fortune. He complained that the United States is focusing too much on terrorism and not enough on economics — on guns instead of butter. “They’re spending a lot of money. Where? It’s not for the benefit of the Afghan people,” he says. “Security won’t come without prosperity.”

True up to a point, but if poverty and ignorance are the root causes of terrorism, how does one explain the middle-class, educated Saudis who hijacked those planes on September 11? Clearly, something other than a lack of upward mobility figures in the dark intellect of radical Islam.

Mr. Barmak hints at this himself when he explains the origins of the Taliban: “They were coming from Pakistan, Chechnya, the Philippines. It was a combination of sick people who wanted to find a place to act out their dirty desires, to make a state of horror and then transfer this to other countries.”

But Siddiq Barmak has had his fill of terrorism talk. Now, he wants to make a “black comedy,” he says, “to see how much our people are able to laugh. I really want to see a big smile on their faces.”

That would be nice to see, indeed.

Will the Bush administration ever get credit for those smiles? Surely not in Hollywood, where, if you just close your eyes and wish hard enough, bad people like Mullah Mohammad Omar and Saddam Hussein disappear all by themselves.

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