Shahrbanoo Sadat’s third film as a writer-director was screened in Cannes Directors’ Fortnight in 2019, following her well-received Wolf and Sheep which won an award at Cannes in 2016. The Orphanage is currently streaming on MUBI. Sadat is a young Afghan director based in Denmark and her films are part of the general trend towards European-backed films from various Asian territories, enabling new directors to create festival films and a foothold in the international film market, even when the infrastructure may not be available for features in their home country.
The Orphanage is set in Russian occupied Kabul in 1988. Qodrat has been sleeping in an abandoned car and hustling outside a cinema, selling key-rings and acting as a ticket tout. We see him in the audience for Shahenshah (India 1988), an Amitabh Bachchan starrer. The male crowd is enjoying Amitabh’s superior fighting skills and singing along to a dance sequence. But somebody has perhaps complained about being cheated by Qodrat and he is picked up by Russians who put him in an orphanage. He later tells the authorities that he is 15 and that he has a mother but that his father is dead. At first sight the orphanage appears a relatively laid-back institution, especially in comparison with the Iranian orphanage in the film Son-Mother (Iran-Czech Republic 2019) that I saw earlier this year at the Glasgow Film Festival.
Qodratollah Qadiri, the actor who plays Qodrat also appeared in Sadat’s previous film. The camera certainly likes him and he makes an attractive lead character. Having said that, The Orphanage is not a conventional youth picture and, though Qodrat is the lead, the narrative does focus on a number of other characters, almost in a documentary style presentation of the orphanage before returning to Qodrat’s perspective. His unique vision is on four occasions presented in fantasy sequences which transport the scene he is witnessing into familiar Hindi cinema set pieces with a careful music track matching late 1980s action and romance films. These are entertaining but what is their meaning? They appear to work to emphasise the way in which Afghan youths like Qodrat must try to survive the dangers of their changing environments when they lack any clear understanding of what is actually happening. I’m not sure the fantasy sequences ‘work’ but they certainly offer something different and they feel ‘authentic’ as a response. It seems unlikely that Sadat will have seen Lindsay Anderson’s if . . . . (1968) but that film includes similar sequences in a British ‘public school’ setting.
Because events are seen from the perspective of Qodrat and the other young people in the orphanage, there is no attempt to explain the major events in Kabul as such. Qodrat and many of the other young people don’t speak Russian, yet announcements are often made in Russian and at one point the girls and boys of the orphanage are flown to Moscow and taken to a pioneer camp. The boys are awkward around the girls and fantasise about some of the female teachers. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the film for me was the relatively liberal feel of the orphanage and the school (it’s not clear if the orphanage is part of the school or vice versa) and the general representation of Russian administrators. The young people seem to have quite a lot of freedom to play football, swim in the river, explore their environs etc. They are well fed and they are offered education (though the script seems a bit hazy on this – Qodrat is deemed to be ‘uneducated’ by his own admission, but he seems able to cope with reading and writing). The only downside seems to be the building next door which houses ‘crazy people’ (as the subtitles translate the dialogue and the credits list the players), possibly suffering from forms of PTSD. The narrative ends at the point when the Russians suddenly leave and the mujahideen occupy Kabul.
The answers to most of my questions about the film are in the statement provided by the director on the MUBI website:
While working on The Orphanage, I was fighting with two clichés. One ‘orphanage’ and the other ‘Afghanistan’. I wanted to show an orphanage where my best friend Anwar Hashimi lived for almost eight years during the years 1984-1992 in Kabul.The orphanage I wanted to talk about was not one of those orphanages that we see in movies or we read about in books, where children are starving or having a really miserable life, and they get beaten and have to work. It was the opposite.
This was the first seriously impressive film that I have seen in 2014. Unfortunately it seems to be suffering from a very limited release in the UK. It is definitely worth seeking out.
The film is adapted from a novella of the same name – translated from the French by Polly McLean (Vintage 2011). The author, Atiq Rahimi, has also directed this film version. The book is set in one room in a small dwelling in Kabul. On a mattress on the floor lies a wounded mujaheddin. His wound is in the back of the neck and he is in a seemingly permanent coma. He is tended by his younger wife who has to arrange the saline drip, or often a water and salt substitute. She talks to him constantly, however she talks about matters and experiences that she would presumably avoid if he was conscious. At times she reads briefly from a Koran, marking her place with a feather. The title of book and film refers to a precious object that the woman recalls that her father told her of: “You talk to it, and talk to it. And the stone listens, absorbing all your words, all your secrets, until one fine day it explodes. Shatters into tiny pieces. …. Sang-e sabur!”
The book is sited almost wholly in the small, bare room where the woman tends her husband. We find out about what happens beyond these walls from the woman and from an unidentified narrative voice. A couple of times her two daughters venture into the room. Later she takes them to stay with her sister, who has both employment and a place to live. A battle ebbs and flows in the streets. A Mullah calls several times to pray for the man, but the wife manages to avoid letting him in. We hear her call to neighbours on occasions. And two sets of mujaheddin visit the room: once when she is absent once when she is present. The book struck me as having a fairly detached description and commentary upon the characters and events in the story.
Not surprisingly the film has a less detached sense, seeing and hearing the characters and their actions is a much more immediate experience. And the performance of Golshifteh Farahani as the woman is both powerful and involving for the audience. Moreover, the film, unlike the book, shows us the events beyond the room. We follow the woman and her children into a basement shelter where we also meet her neighbours. We see the Mullah a he makes his brief calls. We follow the woman through the streets of Kabul and to the rooms of her sister. And we see the visits of the mujaheddin and the consequent actions.
Even so the film follows the book’s plot and characterisations fairly faithfully. One difference that puzzled me was that in the Koran is taken away by the first group of Muhadenne, leaving only the feather behind. In the film it remains in the room.
This appears to be Rahini’s first film. He had the good sense to arrange for Jean-Claude Carriére to adapt the book into a screenplay. Carriére is, of course, well known for his work with Luis Buñuel. In his eighties he remains amazingly productive. The last seriously good film that I saw before The Patience Stone was The Artist and the Model, also scripted by Carriére. Whilst the film is faithful to the book it also contains themes and motifs familiar from Carriere’s other film work: a couple of moments reminded me also of Buñuel. Centrally we have the unconventional passive male in the presence of a woman. Then there is the exploration of sexuality linked to an oppressive obsession. And there is the contrast presented between a woman’s access to sexuality – through choice, marriage and prostitution.