Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

A Star is Born

Fourteen-year-old Marina Gulbahari defies the odds by gaining rave reviews in her first movie and defies convention by deciding to pursue a film career.
By Sohaila Mohseni

The discovery of Marina Gulbahari, 14, who has become the star of a major international film, reads like the script of a Hollywood movie.


Marina, then 11, was begging outside a hotel in Kabul when she was spotted by Afghan film director Sediq Barmak.


"Barmak asked me to take part in a public poetry recital," she recalled, sitting in an unheated hotel in the city centre. “It was a very sentimental piece, very moving and halfway through, I found myself thinking about two of my elder sisters who were killed by a rocket during the Soviet invasion.


"It was very emotional. I lost control and tears started rolling down my cheeks. I think it was because of this that Barmak offered me the part."


Marina went on to star in “Osama”, a film in which she portrays a 12-year-old girl forced to masquerade as a boy called Osama, in order to work to save her widowed mother and grandmother from starvation, when women under the Taleban were banned from working and even appearing outside their home unless accompanied by a male member of the family.


The film went on to win numerous international awards in 2003, including three at the Cannes Film Festival and a Golden Globe as the best foreign-language entry.


Osama’s success also meant that Marina can afford to pay for her education and support her family.


Since making the film, Marina has appeared in two more features as well as in five shorts.


Her decision to pursue an acting career is a brave one in a country still living in the shadow of the Taleban-era.


Even now, Marina said she sometimes has to contend with a barrage of abuse when she walks through some parts of her neighbourhood.


"It was bad when ‘Osama’ first came out in 2003," she said. "Young boys were the worst. They would shout some very insulting remarks and it had an effect on me.


"I became very dispirited and started having regrets about taking the part but when the film started winning awards I realised I had been right. Gradually I grew stronger."


Marina was born in 1990 and lived with her five surviving sisters and two brothers in a very poor district of Kabul, where her father ran a cassette stall until it was closed by the Taleban.


In order to help feed the family, she and one of her brothers would beg in the city centre.


Now circumstances have improved. She has received cash awards from several countries including 4,000 US dollars from Korea; 1,000 from Japan and 5,000 from Iran - enough to buy a 10,000-dollar house in a better part of the capital.


Marina also travelled to Tajikistan, where she has been offered more film work.


Afghan president Hamed Karzai has invited her to the presidential palace and she also received an invitation from US First Lady Laura Bush to visit America.


"My brother and I were to have gone in November," said Marina, "but at the last minute it was cancelled. They said it was because my brother couldn't speak English."


Now Marina wants to pursue her twin ambitions. "I would like to carry on my education and become a good doctor. I want to help the poor in the same way as I was helped.


"And I would like to carry on film-making. When I first went on the set I was very nervous. I was always afraid of any mullahs because I didn't realise they were actors.


"Gradually I became more relaxed and now I love it. One day I would like a leading role."


Her decision, she says, has upset a few people, "People have asked my father to stop me because they don't approve."


And some close relatives have ceased all contact with her family because of one scene in Osama where Marina appears in a public baths with a group of boys.


Marina has no regrets. "The best day of [my] life was when the Taleban fell," she said. "We lived in poverty and like all girls in Afghanistan I was deprived of education. The second best was getting a film role.


"If the Taleban had been in power I might still be outside the hotel begging."


Sohaila Mohseni is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.


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