Opium War



Rome Film Festival

ROME -- A wasted opportunity by Afghanistan’s best-known director Siddiq Barmak to convey the harsh reality of his country to a curious world, “Opium War” will disappoint fans of his luminous “Osama” while it struggles to find venues outside of festivals. Despite some eye-catching visuals that recall Samira Makhmalbaf’s work, this surreal tale of two American soldiers stuck in the desert with a family of impoverished Afghan nomads is pointless and more than a little offensive. It is so alarmingly off-the-mark in depicting the Yanks, one can only wonder whether there is anything at all real about the Afghan characters.

That was not a doubt one had about “Osama,” where Barmak stretched the story of a little girl disguised as a boy without losing believability or emotional touch with his characters. Here there is no emotional contact of any kind, just a succession of shameless stereotypes and weird situations. Film’s ultimate message may be anything from war is hell to Afghanistan is unconquerable.

Film’s central problem is its naive depiction of soldier Joe Harris (Joe Suba) from Harlem who has never heard of the Bahamas or burkas and seems lifted from a D.W. Griffith movie and his commanding officer Don Johnson (Peter Bussian), your typical ugly American. After being shot down in their helicopter, they revive themselves and start wandering the desert. Don, whose legs are badly injured, forces Joe to carry him around piggy-back by keeping a gun pointed at his head, a truly bad scripting idea that goes on and on.

They are observed by a tough little boy (Faward Samani) who lives in an old Russian tank with three squabbling women and their broods of children. The director of “Osama” spends not a shot, not a single line of dialogue humanizing any of the shrewish, cursing women, wives of a patriarchal sheep and donkey owner who comes stumping home one day on one leg.

What seems to most entrance Barmak are the visual possibilities offered by the stunning Afghan desert and its waving fields of pain-killing poppies, dramatically photographed by Georgi Dzulaiev. At one point, a column of identically-dressed women in burkas gracefully glides across the sands, only to reveal themselves as bearded opium smugglers with hidden Kalashnikovs. Why hide in the middle of the desert? Later, identically dressed soldiers wearing sunglasses appear out of nowhere accompanied by donkeys and ballot boxes, bringing “democracy” to the illiterate nomads. But long before then, most of the audience will have given up in despair.

Production company: Barmak Film.
Cast: Peter Bussian, Joe Suba, Faward Samani, Marina Golbahari.
Director: Siddiq Barmak.
Screenwriters: Siddiq Barmak.
Producers: Siddiq Barmak, Shohreh Golparian.
Co-producers: Haruo Kawashima, Suh Youngjoo, Carole Scotta.
Director of photography: Georgi Dzulaiev.
Production designer: Bakhteyar Qaharov.
Music: Daler Nazarov.
Editor: Michele Hickson.
Sales Agent: Cineclick Asia, South Korea.
No rating, 90 minutes.