Osama / Dogville

By Ashish Ghadiali

Friday the thirteenth brought a double dose of good fortune for London's cinema-goers, with the UK release of both Lars von Trier's Dogville and the Afghan director, Siddiq Barmak's first feature film, Osama.

Osama is the first film to have come out of Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, and it turns an eye that understands both pain and compassion over the hardships of life under a totalitarian regime. It tells the story of a young girl whose father was killed in war. Her widowed mother, prevented from earning a living by the Taliban's laws against women working, cuts her daughter's hair, and posing her as a boy, puts her to work with an old friend of her husband. The girl is taken by a Taliban mullah to an education camp for orphan boys. She is taunted by the other boys for being so feminine whilst receiving lascivious attention from the camp's eldest teacher. Through the girl's fear of being found out, the film depicts the terror of life as a woman in Afghanistan at this time.

Barmak opens the film with an epigram taken from Mandela – 'I cannot forget, but I can forgive' – and what is startling about the treatment of the Taliban here, is the extent to which the zealots themselves are shown, whilst committing monstrosities, to be striving towards virtue.

I cannot overstate how remarkable this effect is. Barmak's experience of the Taliban's excesses was first-hand – he nearly lost his first son in the early 90s when, just 2 days after his wife had given birth, they were forced to flee together on foot from one of the last northern strongholds of the anti-Taliban resistance. His film demonstrates no desire to gloss over the grim realities of life under the regime – in an opening sequence that shows a protest of blue-clad war widows violently suppressed by water cannons, or in a shot showing the protestors thrown like chickens into a tiny cage, in the horrific images of a women's prison where hidden faces cannot hide the depiction of the prisoner's wailing souls, or in the images of the young lead, Osama, struggling desperately to reveal her face to the world while she waits to be judged – the tragedy of life under the burkha is vividly and painfully illustrated. If anything, Barmak wants to exaggerate the savagery of the Taliban's legacy – for example, when he depicts the execution of a western journalist. (in reality, the Taliban never killed journalists.)

But when he takes us closer to the men themselves, rather than show us monsters, he shows us idealists – men who are engaged in a struggle to create a new and better world. At one point, in the Taliban's school for orphans, Osama is dangled in a well as punishment for getting stuck in a tree. The violence of the act is made clear by the terror it instils in the young child, but when the camera returns to the punishers, we see that they are not sadists, but men who believe passionately that they are helping the boy to better himself.

The effect is not to excuse what the Taliban did, but to demonstrate the fallibility of their idealism. As Dubya did when he spoke of a war of good against evil, it would have been easy for Barmak to fight the fundamentalism of the Taliban with an anti-Taliban fundamentalism of his own. Instead, he chooses to resist by showing a vision of humanity, and thereby reveals the naivety of all ideals. Perhaps there is no better image to describe this than the closing shot of the old lascivious teacher performing his absolutions in a hot tub. Dunking his head below the surface in search of purity, he loses track of the world altogether.

Shot using untrained actors (Osama is played by a street child from Kabul) Barmak's style combines flavours of italian neo-realism with the documentary directness of Iranian director and friend of Barmak, Mohsen Makhalbaf (Kandahar). The result is something deeply unique that marks out Siddiq Barmak as a great new voice of the world's cinema.

This status has been held undisputably by Lars von Trier since his 1999 collaboration with Bjork, Dancer in the Dark which brought him international recognition as an experimentalist of the highest order, capable of carrying us from feelings of gut-wrenching grittiness to the sublime and the beautiful and back again.

With Dogville, his latest offering, the experiment has changed but it is as audacious as ever and as successfully realised. With his sights still firmly set on the hypocrisy of the American dream, von Trier tells the story of how the inhabitants of an isolated small town, during the depression of the 1930s, reluctantly take in an urban fugitive, Grace (played by Nicole Kidman), before descending to a level of ruthless exploitation unknown to her in the company of the gangsters that she was fleeing.

Staged like a piece of Brechtian theatre, in a studio with walls marked out by painted lines and lamps unashamedly on display, with actors miming the opening and closing of doors and declaiming their thoughts in a deliberately artificial style, Dogville never fails to remind us that every piece of moral philosophy conveyed by speech, every detail of the architecture that creates a society, is nothing more than a construct.

This too is a film about the bullshit behind ideals – the way that high minded words and phrases can be used to conceal uncomfortable truths. Just as Barduk finds a complex and perverse strategy to achieve sexual gratification underlying the Taliban's laws against women working, so von Trier finds a comparable pattern of sexual exploitation embedded in the american language of economic reason.

However, any generosity of spirit that is present in the work of Siddiq Barduk, is profoundly absent in the work of Lars von Trier. The pessimistic irony evident in the Danish director's earlier films is here presented without any of the feeling of redemption projected through the tragedies of the heroines in both Breaking The Waves and Dancer in the Dark. Dogville takes us through to a dark yet hilariously handled conclusion, where the disturbing violence of the earlier scenes is turned into the postmodern comedy of a debate that pits the naïve arguments of a social liberal against the hard-nosed business sense of a world-weary neo-conservative. Taking apart both the dominant ideologies of contemporary America, it shows how, without the total self-sacrifice that drives Dancer in the Dark and Breaking the Waves, the intention to do good in the world, when handled self-righteously, can so easily find itself caught up in acts of barbaric and nihilistic destruction.

But the stylistic differences between the two directors cannot take away from the strange coincidences that can be found in these two films made on opposite sides of the world. It's enough to suggest that a new political cinema might be beginning to emerge that insists that the ends never do not justify the means, but for those that would prefer not to think in such terms just yet, there's simply two powerful, original films to go and see.
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