February 17, 2004 > Interview with Osama Director, Siddiq Barmak
Interview with Osama Director, Siddiq Barmak
by Christopher Cobb
He grabbed the world's attention with an acceptance speech at one of the world's largest cinematic events. Siddiq Barmak can speak English but is not especially fluent, so he tends to speak more than he has to. Because of this, there is an unintended poetry to his words. So when the director of "Osama" accepted his award for best Foreign Film at this year's Golden Globes, it was fumbling, and a little long, but absolutely authentic. And while Nicole Kidman watched in confusion, the Afghan director finally had his moment.
"I was looking to open doors for Afghan cinema," he said a day after the ceremony. "It is not only myself, I am not alone. There is a lot of good talent. And I think this kind of award ceremony can bring them more optimism, more enthusiasm, more hopes."
Of course, Kidman's confusion could be warranted. Little is known about Barmak's film, which shares the name of one of the world's most hated men. The first film out of Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, it has less to do with the mastermind of the September 11th attacks and more to do with the oppressive regime that held a country hostage.
"Osama" is about identity, how the definition of an individual becomes blurred when life under oppression becomes so extreme that even the question of gender becomes trivial in light of survival.
"This pain belongs not only to Afghan people," Barmak explained, "it's something international, something that belongs to all humans in the world."
In fact, "Osama" has a strong local connection. Putting the film together, the director had to scour the globe for a production crew. "A lot of these people are living around us, in San Jose, and Fremont and Los Angeles," he said. "And I was looking for a good crew and it was difficult to collect the people who had even a very limited knowledge of filming (in Afghanistan)."
With regard to actors, Barmak decided on the unconventional, choosing locals and street children out of Kabul. "I selected all my actors and actresses from the ordinary people," he said. "The casting had to be like that because I wanted the feel to be closest to natural. That isn't to say documentary, but as a documentation of these things."
Often, Barmak found the experience with untrained actors, and children rewarding. "You can count on improvisation with these guys," he said, "and it gave them a chance to bring their own experiences."
Barmak's own life in Afghanistan also aided his vision: "I used a lot of silence in the film because it was my experience. The night the Taliban captured Kabul, it was a moonlit night...And it was silent. There were no sounds, not from cars or birds. For many hours, I was sitting at the windows and I just wanted to close my eyes and listen to the sounds of this horrible situation, but there was only silence."
Personal experience was key to the success of "Osama," because, for all the dehumanization, the film is relatively tame. Barmak is no splatter director.
"I really wanted to build the structure of my film on reaction," he said, adding "I never wanted to show direct horror, but I really wanted to cross that horror and show the reaction."
Yet the film exists not only to show the world the truth behind the oppression. It serves also to help the people living in Afghanistan understand what they went through. "For our people," he said, "it's very important to transfer by film some special message. Eighty-five percent of people living in Afghanistan are uneducated people; they are not able to read and write, but they are able to understand images...They want to see their own faces in this mirror, they want to listen to their own voices."
"Osama" has the world's attention. On top of garnering this year's honor at the Golden Globes, the film won awards at both the Cannes and London film festivals, and was nominated and short-listed for numerous international awards. Unfortunately, Oscar was not one of them. With the release of Academy Awards nominations last month, "Osama" was surprisingly absent from the foreign film category.
Barmak was unconcerned. "I'm working on my next project, and it doesn't matter about the Oscar or Golden Globes," he said. "My heart is beating because I'm a filmmaker. I'm not a good speaker, I'm not a writer, I'm not a poet. My language is images, so I can tell something with images and it is my possibility. And I have to do that, I have to speak."