Docudrama’s blurred boundaries: truth and fiction in Afghani cinema

by Gohar Siddiqui

Siddiq Barmak’s Afghani film, Osama (2003), tells the fictionalized story of a little girl (played by Marina Golbahari) living under the Taliban rule. According to Barmak, it is a simple story, simply told:

“My goal was to make the film for my country, my people, who don’t completely understand dramatic styles or surrealism or too much poetry. We use a very simple, direct style to tell the story” (A. G. Basoli, 40).

The director’s faith in the power of film, especially in a country where illiteracy rates are high, leads him to document the history of his people for his people. However, evidence points to a secondary but also important intended audience for his film: Barmak traveled internationally to promote Osama, which won several awards including the Golden Globe, thus indicating his address to a global audience. Even as he eschewed an experimental style for his people, Barmak's direct style is different from the usual mainstream cinematic fare about the oppressed. This unfamiliar form hails the film’s viewers, its intended as well as non-Afghani audiences, differently. Osama uses a documentary style combined with neorealist storytelling to lay bare the reality of war-torn Afghanistan. This hybridity allows Barmak to work with a notion of fidelity and truth that complicates the binary of “either a naïve faith in the truth of the documentary image or of an uncritical embrace of fictional manipulation” (Linda Williams 65). In this essay, I argue that looking at Barmak’s film through the hybrid construction of docudrama opens up a space to see how its form and content produces non-dominant ways of engaging with, and therefore critiquing, western images of Afghanistan.

Barmak’s film is an attempt to undo some of the connections that equate Muslim bodies with terror that dehumanize them in non-Muslim eyes. The transnational, but largely non-western, production support and funding for the film already establishes it as oppositional to the global capitalist production systems that validate Islamophobic representations. Global Islamophobia has been on the rise post-9/11 and includes the ways in which anti-Muslim hatred has become globalized because of various factors coming together—western/U.S. imperialism, neo-colonialism, secular fundamentalism, and various nationalisms that repeatedly construct the Muslim as the other in film, media, news-reports, and political cartoons, etc.[1] [open endnotes in new page] The securing of this Islamophobia can be traced back to the War on Terror that aggravated the conflation of terrorist and brown Muslim even as the white rescue narrative repeatedly justified the war as saving Afghani people. Like older western imperialism and orientalism, gendered splits legitimated these attacks as well: the image of the veiled woman became the symbol of victimization. At the same time, the brown Muslim men and veiled women were also viewed as threatening, thus producing what Robin Riley calls transnational sexism. As she argues,

“The logic of transnational sexism, while centralized around the assumption of Muslim women’s oppression, is simultaneously contradictory: at times, it imagines Muslim women to be objects or victims in need of rescue and saving from local patriarchs while it also imagines these very same Muslim women to be subjects of terror and fear” (3).

Such a combination of global Islamophobia and transnational sexism forms the contextual backdrop of Osama’s reception outside of Afghanistan.

Given the Taliban’s total destruction of the Afghani film industry and the nation’s poverty, it would have been impossible for an Afghani filmmaker to gain the tools to represent the reality of his country and people and to provide a counterpoint to the discourse of transnational sexism. In this case, the film’s biggest funding support came from the Irani filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf; other industries such as Japan and Ireland provided additional funding.[2] In the contemporary moment where Hollywood enjoys global hegemony, these non-dominant, often state-run, fledgling industries produce a transnational solidarity that then enables Osama to be truly counter-hegemonic in its production, style, and content. Barmak rejects a purely documentary or mainstream narrative mode to tell the story about the impact of the Taliban rule on the life of a little girl. Here Barmak uses neither a purely documentary nor mainstream narrative mode to tell the story about the impact of Taliban rule on a girl’s life. Borrowing from both genres, his film creates a defamiliarized text for the viewer which potentially leads to their awareness of their own involvement in the signification process.

The film’s treatment of its story and its use of what I am claiming is a docudramatic style requires an active engagement from the viewer in constructing a sense of Afghani reality. For example, the name of the film, Osama, would suggest to the viewer that the film is connected to real events regarding the terrorist leader with an internationally recognized name. Combined with the news of the little girl on whom the film’s protagonist is based, Osama’s viewers would most likely expect the film to connect the plight of the girl protagonist to the very real living conditions of women under the Taliban rule. In fact, this character remains nameless—except for a brief moment where she is called Osama by another boy. That namelessness allows her to register in the viewer’s brain in a relatively open way. The Afghani girl that Barmak selected for this role is named Marina,[3] and I have chosen to use the name “Marina” for the character partially for ease of discussion here. However, this rhetorical choice parallels my argument since I see Barmak’s deliberate blurring of the boundaries between the fictive and the real in many aspects of how this particular character is presented.

Most newspaper coverage of the film and its director around the time of the film’s release emphasized the connection between the realities of Taliban rule in Afghanistan and the script about a little girl who dared to defy them.[4] In interviews Barmak also recalls the Taliban’s treatment of Afghani people and their dislike for cameras and cinema. The director was not only a witness to the Taliban’s destruction of film and equipment but had his own confrontation with them. Such interviews influence the film’s reception, adding to a viewer’s knowledge that the film’s representation of the Taliban is an amalgam of the director’s own witnessing. For example, the constant fear that permeates Afghani daily life is reproduced in scenes where a Taliban member follows Marina to her home or where her mother tears up the photographs of her dead husband and of her own wedding when worried about a Taliban search of the house. The viewer becomes a witness to the film’s documentation of this reality as well as an emotional participant through its affective invocation.

In addition to this direct reconstruction of events in Afghanistan that then add credibility to the film’s status as part-documentary, Barmak’s direct cinema style often borrows from documentary conventions to convey the “real” Afghanistan. More important, precisely because connotative Islamophobic meanings have been socially tied to Afghanistan’s photographic images, the docudrama form destabilizes the fetishization of indexicality in these images. Thus, by playing a game of misdirection between fiction and reality, the film raises questions about truth or objectivity inherent in representations of the Afghani people by western media. This happens even as it posits Barmak’s truth as more valid in depicting the complex reality of oppression in the country. However, the degree to which the film strategically counters an Islamophobic stance is polysemic. In particular, it depends upon the embodied knowledges and experiences a viewer brings to the viewing and witnessing of images that resonate intertextually.

Living in Fear: The camera is positioned just behind the Taliban member’s head as he follows Marina when she is on her way home from work. The reverse shot from inside Marina’s home, shows his lurking presence as a threat that is a ubiquitous part of their lives.
A terrified Marina runs in to tell her mother that she is being followed. Her mother, equally scared, takes out all their photographs from their hiding place and destroys them for fear that the Taliban may find them and then punish her family.

Documentary vs. docudrama

Documentary’s cultural status depends on a kind of faith that creates a truth-contract between viewers and filmmakers. Bill Nichols characterizes this relation between subject, audience, and filmmaker as deriving from the technology of representation. He argues,

“in documentary, we remain attentive to the documentation of what comes before the camera. We uphold our belief in the authenticity of the historical world represented on screen” (36).

This fidelity that is often assumed to characterize documentary is founded on an understanding of an indexical relation presumed between the object/subject, signifier, and signified—in other words, the relation between the actual object filmed, its representation, and an audience’s reconstruction of this object and its interpretation.[5] At the same time, though, the fact of representation itself presents a paradox because the object/real remains absent; any representation is already removed from the reality of the thing represented. A representation, and this is true of language in general, functions as an interpretive matrix over which the subject has no control, much like the image of a veiled woman as a symbol of Muslim patriarchy can become a tool in legitimating U.S. attacks. Moreover, increasingly with digital media, the notion of indexicality loses its power.

Nichols argues that there is no guarantee of an absolute separation between fiction and documentary and that fidelity lies in the mind of the beholder as much as it lies in the relation between a camera and what comes before it (xi-xii). However, commonly held assumptions about documentary still maintain those differences matter for viewers in terms of documentary’s purchase on reality and objectivity. Thus, a documentary’s differentiated status within media culture is a result of its form and purpose, but that status also depends on how documentary enters an intertextual reception context as already inherently faithful to an objective reality.

Its objectivity and pursuit of truth also partially derives from documentary filmmaking’s historically colonial and masculinist roots. Because of this bias at the heart of its form, numerous filmmakers have turned to experimentation to wrest it into non-dominant forms. For example, talking about the war on terrorism, Bruce Bennett argues that

“one of the primary ways Anglo-American film-makers have responded critically to this global explosion of violence, and its spectacular hypermediation, is through a generic and stylistic turn to the production of documentaries” (210).

Still, documentary’s privileging of a notion of reality and evidence makes it unviable to narrate stories where the truth might be rejected as just anecdotal or where objective truth is not knowable. In contrast, mainstream fiction film is well known for creating fantasy worlds and therefore does not carry a burden of authenticity, and it’s assumed that differing genre expectations impact audiences differently. Such a division, however, is not absolute. Documentary films, despite their emphasis on facts, use techniques from mainstream fiction cinema practices: manipulation of the material through inclusions/exclusions; use of editing and sound to create melodramatic situations; and synthesizing events into a storyline to evoke pathos and maintain audience interest. Similarly, mainstream fiction film uses certain techniques from documentary for aesthetic purposes or to evoke certain responses in audiences—like the direct gaze of a character to the viewer.

As a hybrid of fiction and documentary, docudrama defamiliarizes both and draws attention to the blurring of boundaries within these two modalities. One effect of this mixing of modes is that it allows for the inclusion of stories that might not seem objective enough even as the docudrama genre emphasizes their truths. Other genres and styles as well, like Italian neo-realism or the social problem film, exist at the intersection of documentary and fiction, and I would qualify them as functioning in a similar universe as far as form and purpose are concerned. In this essay, I want to explore if, in crossing those borders of fiction and truth, this form and this film successfully reject the weight of orientalist and patriarchal filmmaking practices.

Docudrama is not new in using techniques from both fiction and documentary modes for rhetorical purposes of persuasion and in imagining worlds from non-dominant perspectives. Docudramas often tell real life stories of trauma by interspersing texts like news footage with recalled point of view re-enactments of events. The narratives thus exist at the intersection of various borders: documentary and drama, truth and fiction, objective and subjective modes, macro/global and micro/local scope, and masculine and feminine forms. As scholars have considered this mix present in docudramas, for example, Alan Rosenthal has speculated on docudrama’s relation to reality and discussed its political potential, [6] and in a similar vein, Derek Paget has emphasized the form’s power to tell stories that can perhaps not be told in any other way.[7] Various films that re-enact a past accessible primarily through memory fall into this category. In this vein, here are a few films that tell the stories of victims of holocaust, rape, domestic abuse, the legal system, and U.S. imperialism:

In Osama, Barmak positions the film’s objective, narrative, and cinematic points of view from the perspective of the victim—the Afghani people—in telling the story of their trauma as history.

My interest here is not in defining the boundaries of docudrama. While scholars like Paget have delineated certain crucial features of the form that aid in understanding and analyzing how these aspects create an interpretive matrix, the form itself is leakier than most genres because of its hybrid nature. Films like The Thin Blue Line and Road to Guantanamo fulfill requirements that declare them a docudrama—talking head interviews, re-enactments, found footage, news reports, captions and intertitles. However, they also fit in the category of performative documentary as described by Bill Nichols. In fact, both Keith Beattie and Linda Williams discuss The Thin Blue Line as a documentary.[8]

On the other hand, the discussions of docudramas in popular magazines often emphasize their non-documentary aspect. For example, David Rose, writing for The Guardian, calls Road to Guantanamo a partly dramatized feature film, and A.O. Scott in The New York Times insists:

“It should be emphasized that the movie, directed by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, is not a documentary.”

Controversies dogged Road to Guantanamo about its form and manipulation of viewers and used these arguments to point to its failure as a documentary. The film creates a narrative in which Muslim youth raised in England travel to Pakistan for a wedding and then cross the border to get Afghani naan. Once there, they want to help but cannot adapt to the environment, get lost, and are caught up in the struggle there. In showing the brutalization of Afghani citizens by the U.S. government in Afghanistan and later in Guantanamo Bay, the film directly critiques the imperialist rhetoric contained in dominant images and representations of Afghanistan and the War on Terror. What is at stake when critics fault this British film as not-documentary is that they reject the point of the film itself. Thus, on the one hand, these magazine articles create a context to contain the film’s anti-U.S. interpretations by indicating the ways in which facts were fabricated or omitted. On the other hand, the film had a limited release in the U.S. because of the fear of its impact.[9] In this case, the need to contain such a film betrays what Rosenthal has claimed for docudrama, that it’s an “important force for good”—a “special genre, a tool that, when used well, provides some clear and necessary observation about the world, occasionally even stirring [audiences] to action” (10). In shifting the Western perspective of an international viewer who is asked to identify with these Muslim youth and feel the injustice meted out to them, Road to Guantanamo potentially invites a critique of the government and its practices.

Road to Guantanamo shows hooded and trussed up prisoners before their transport to Cuba. The film shows that the treatment of suspects by US military included torture.
Among other things, prisoners were kept naked for 30 days at a time, threatened with dogs, exposed to extreme heat, and shackled in extreme positions. Along with these re-enactments of brutalization of inmates, the film includes footage from Donald Rumsfeld’s speech that denies the reality of torture of the Guantanamo Bay detainees.

In contrast to Road to Guantanamo, Osama’s combination of truth and fiction is in some ways simpler. Despite the controversies around docudrama as a genre, or perhaps even because of them, here the hybrid form effects a viewer’s confrontation with the moral quagmire and messiness of the Afghan situation. It encourages thinking about Afghan life in complex and nuanced ways instead of black and white melodramatic polarizations. Like many docudramas, the film is based on an event in the news that Barmak, while in exile in Pakistan, read in an Afghani newspaper, Sahar (Basoli). The story was about a little girl who pretended to be a boy in order to get an education and was subsequently caught by the Taliban. Barmak developed that story further—the child lives with her mother and grandmother in abject poverty. In the plot, since all male members of their family have been killed in the war or by the Taliban, and the women are not allowed to work under Taliban rule, the family is close to starvation. Desperate, her mother and grandmother persuade the girl to dress as a boy so that she can earn money. However, the child is taken by the Taliban along with other young boys to a madrassa/school to be indoctrinated into a Taliban version of Islam, where they eventually find out that she is a girl.

In creating a script, Barmak took liberties with the story, expanded the narrative, included details about Afghani life under Taliban rule, and created a melodramatic and exaggerated ending. Marina is taken to a hearing where a U.S. journalist is killed and a white female doctor is stoned to death (both happen off-screen). She is doomed to a similar fate as well but is “rescued” by a lecherous mullah and given to him in marriage. The film ends with her trying to escape but unable to do so. The fictionalization here exceeds the documentary impulse evident in Road to Guantanamo. For example, in this case there are no talking head interviews or captions. The film seamlessly encourages viewers’ suspension of disbelief necessary for immersion into a melodramatic story even as it maintains its commitment to reality.

Most would call it a neo-realist film, and Barmak’s interviews make explicit his faith in this particular form to tell his story. However, as Luca Caminati argues, even a quick survey of histories of Italian cinema immediately points to the documentary quality of neorealist filmmaking, establishing a tie between the two on the basis of their shared "realist" ambitions. Caminati uses Nichols to argue that neorealist cinema is a fictional representation of "time and space in experience as it is lived,” and it combines

"the searching eye of the documentary with the inter-subjective, thus identifying strategies of fiction, and the prioritization of victims as subject-matter.”

While this critical observation about neo-realism is certainly true of Barmak’s film, I’m more interested in examining the film as a docudrama because this particular approach emphasizes the importance of the profilmic reality that represents time and space as it is lived, as a historical real, through documentary’s indexical bond. At the same time, it allows for the film’s representation of resistance—as opposed to pathos even as it shows the people as victims. In the interview for Cineaste, Barmak discusses more than the story of the little girl in terms of what the film conveys—he mentions how the women protested when the Taliban would not let them celebrate Nowruz, their new year, and how in Herat, about 150 women protested when the Taliban shut down NGO-run bakeries that gave people bread every day (Basoli). His film incorporates these images of protests to form part of the background of the real (although embellished) story of the girl.

Women go to attend a protest against a background of Afghani streets. Women protest for the right to work.