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CANNES 2019 Directors’ Fortnight

Shahrbanoo Sadat • Director of The Orphanage

“Some people feel I don’t talk enough about war and politics in my films”


- CANNES 2019: Afghan director Shahrbanoo Sadat breaks down The Orphanage, the second part of a planned pentalogy that began with the acclaimed Wolf and Sheep

Shahrbanoo Sadat  • Director of The Orphanage

With The Orphanage [+see also:
film review
interview: Shahrbanoo Sadat
film profile
, Afghan director Shahrbanoo Sadat takes yet another step down the path of making her planned five-part story about her home country’s turbulent recent history. From the shepherd village of her feature debut, Wolf and Sheep [+see also:
film review
interview: Shahrbanoo Sadat
film profile
, which won the Art Cinema Award in the 2016 Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, we are now taken to the streets of Kabul in 1989. The movie is again screening in the Directors’ Fortnight. 

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Cineuropa: How has your journey been since the release of Wolf and Sheep?
Shahrbanoo Sadat:
 On some levels successful and on some others not as successful. I knew exactly what kind of story I wanted to tell and what direction I wanted to take. On the other hand, there’s this market with certain expectations, in particular when depicting Afghanistan; people expect some new angle compared to what everyone is used to seeing, an underlying message. I don’t want to tell it like this, so I feel like people are surprised, sometimes in a good way, but also sometimes in a bad way. “We like the story, but this is not Afghanistan.” I’ve heard this from sales agents and distributors, regarding both films. 

Are they experts on Afghanistan?
No, but they are very good buyers and sellers. Some people feel like I don’t talk enough about war and politics in my films. For Wolf and Sheep, they wanted burkas on the women. I told them that this is not worn in rural Afghanistan. I sometimes feel I’m swimming around in some unruly sea of expectations. 

Wolf and Sheep had a documentary feel, whereas The Orphanage is more in a classic fiction style.
I really like it when people say this, not just in Europe or internationally, but even in Afghanistan – they believe that it’s real. And the characters in Wolf and Sheep are real, but they play in the film; in The Orphanage, they act. For me, this was a challenge, not least because of the fact that we were showing a period when many of them had not been born yet. I had to explain to the actors that back then, women wore skirts, showed their hair and could dance. 

You were born in 1991. What were the possible challenges and benefits of not having experienced 1989?
For this, I had my friend Anwar, who also plays the role of the kind supervisor at the orphanage. He took care of the costumes and props, and gave me advice on the period. “This is not the way it was; you need to change it,” and so forth. But he doesn’t come from the cinema world at all, so he may know what’s good for reality, but not for fiction. That’s where I come in.

And Anwar is Anwar Hashimi, on whose diaries you have based your stories. And Qodrat, your young main character, is really Anwar, correct?
Correct. And Sediqa, the girl, is me – kind of. In reality, there is an 18-year age gap between Anwar and me, but we really do come from the same village. In Wolf and Sheep, I wishfully made us more or less the same age. You can see both Qodrat and Sediqa in The Orphanage. It is not clearly articulated, but they are really the same as in the first film – not just the actors, but also the characters.

You are planning five films based on Anwar’s diaries. What will we see next?
Many things that will look stranger than fiction but which really happened – and which are part of the history of Afghanistan, but seen from a unique point of view. It’s poetic and political, and honest and simple. Anwar, as he will be the first to tell you, is not a writer, not from cinema, not an actor – he hated watching himself on screen. But the way he describes his life and his country is exactly the way through which I want to establish myself as a filmmaker. My experience mixed with his. 

What can we expect in the next film – or films?
I like to play with genres. The Orphanage plays with Bollywood, and the next will be like a horror film. It goes back to before the start of Wolf and Sheep, when the little boy is about four years old. The fourth film will be about Qodrat in an Iranian refugee camp and the fifth about the Taliban in 1996. I also want to create a book, based on Anwar’s diaries. It’s 800 pages long and will need to be loyally and truthfully translated. This version is very different from my cinematic vision. To read it and also watch the films will be a very interesting experience.

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