A scene from The Orphanage, a film directed by Shahrbanoo Sadat

A narrative of war without war

By: Jamaluddin Aram

We sat at a table in a Persian restaurant, ordered tea and talked about Afghanistan: its politics, Kabul’s late afternoon dust storms, the teahouses and restaurants of Pul e Surkh, old friends, and her new film Wolf and Sheep. We were in Schenectady, NY. She had come from Chicago and was going to Kiev. Looking out onto an empty street, we drank tea and discussed the lack of a conventional plot in the film. Shahrbanoo argued that the film was an attempt to capture life, which doesn’t have a plot, necessarily. I disagreed. Although film and literature are a depiction of life, they operate within an artistic construction; therefore, one can bend the plot in whatever way that fits their purpose. However, one cannot completely discard plot which seemed to be the case in her film. Wolf and Sheep’s raw originality made it a success. The characters didn’t play the roles, they lived it. Only the vast and undisturbed beauty of the film’s setting could match the wild freshness of the young director’s vision.

The characters didn’t play the roles, they lived it.

Although stemming from the same creative place—part of the same larger body of work as the Wolf and Sheep—in The Orphanage, that wild fresh vision is more mature and focused. There is a sense of calmness to the storytelling. Similar to her previous work, the film is composed of a number of subplots: smaller stories that seamlessly proceed, overlap and weave in-and-out of each other. Ehsanullah, the mustachioed bully, Qodrat and the girl he admires from a distance, Fayaz and his burning desire for the woman, the deputy director, Masihullah and his mastery in chess, Hasib and his endless passion for soccer. It is the amalgamation of these stories and their struggle to reach a conclusion that propels the narrative forward and forms the overarching plot of the film

With minute storytelling and masterfully utilizing empathy, exaggeration, and fantasy as devices, the director brings the viewers at the edge of their seats and for the ninety minute that follows keeps them there to tell them about the innocence of youth, love, passion, memory, loss, war, and the social fabric of Afghanistan. Towards the beginning of the film, Hasib and Karan Jeet Singh’s conversation is beautiful. Not only it captures a lighthearted childlike indulgences where Karan Jeet, a Sikh student, agrees to say Kalama and change his religion if Hasib gives him football stickers, but also shows the deeply rooted ignorance in the society.

The Orphanage is self-critical. As much as it is funded by festivals and art organizations overseas, it is with Afghans that the film resonates the most. This is evident in the language. Phrases, such as Khar Masti or Eto Fayaz’e Beyaya, speak of almost unexplainable concepts that one needs to have lived in Afghanistan to fully grasp the meaning of them. This is an incredible success and a promising beginning for the director but most importantly for the Afghan Cinema. With few exceptions, in nearly two decades of post-Taliban Afghan cinema the dialogues sound strange in the mouth of the characters as though they speak a foreign language when the camera is on them.

The everyday dialects and language are not the only nuances that make the film technically proficient. The treatment of time and space, the weaving of politics and social history into the narrative, the metaphors, symbolism all in all gives The Orphanage the success it deserves.

Using Bollywood as a vehicle to drive meaning is one such example. In college, I took a course which studied contemporary India through its multi-billion film industry. Once while my American classmates giggled as they watched the fight and dance, the professor explained that such scenes had emerged from the heart of an urgent need of the Indian mass who lived in impoverished villages and cities without the means or the hope to see the world and experience power and wealth first hand. It was through the big screens that they came close in attainting the unattainable. In some places in India, the professor mentioned, people watch the song and step out. They smoke, they chat till a person comes out screaming when the next song is about to begin.

The Orphanage builds upon a similar concept. Qodrat like many other Afghan men finds joy inwatching Bollywood films. Because only while in theater, he can transcend his rather unpleasant realty and see himself in the image of the movie’s hero who single handedly handles an army of bad guys. Drawing on the Bollywood connections is not merely for entertainment purposes. It points at a deeper social phenomenon. In the absence of domestic production, Indian cinema have filled the void. Across the country and across generations the influence of Hindi films is visible in the way Afghans dress, speak or fall in love. So it must not come as a surprise that Qodrat’s point of reference at the peak of his erotic imagination, and at time of sheer pain and rage reach is Bollywood. This integration of Hindi cinema into the film is ingenious and masterfully done.

There are aspects of the film, however, that don’t quite work. For instance, the multitude of characters is both a blessing and a curse. It provides the director with the option to build and weave more stories and therefore create more layers, images and energy into the narrative. But at the same time it makes it nearly impossible to fully explore each character, to give them the time and space they deserve to shine. At the end, there are many shallowly developed characters that over crowd the narrative.

Like the number of characters there are redundant scenes. Let’s take the study tour to Russia as an example. There is no doubt that during this period students went to the Soviet Union and its then central Asian colonies. But it is a fact that doesn’t add anything to the plot. Is it in the film to show the Afghan-Soviet relations? Is it there to establish Masih as a chess-genius who beats a computer? If it is to justify the former, that relation is clear and needs no more hammering. If it is to establish the former, that character treat could have been developed within the orphanage. Apart from those loose associations, Linen’s mausoleum, the dances, the soccer game, the plane ride at best are an interruption to the plot.

Despite the shortcomings of the film, there are moments of unmistakable brilliance, glimpses of cinematic excellence. One such moments come very early on in the film when Masih and Fayaz are introduced. The frame is simple, the hue-less wallpaper background, and the two boys with faces so young yet matured so abruptly, the soft hardness of their figures, the teacher who is off camera and the viewer can only hear his voice; the questions are short, direct and unencumbered, and the answers are like small instant explosions that reveal the characters in leaps and bounds, and in a way summarizes the entire film, the recent painful reality of Afghanistan as a country and Afghans as a nation. Another such moment is when the boys are swimming in the river, only for this moment of careless play to come to a sudden end when the Russian tank rolls off the road down the hill. It can be interpreted as a metaphor about millions of children in the country whose childhood have been interrupted first by the Russian invasion, then the civil war, later the Taliban, and yet later the disasters that weak governance has brought on the country. And there is the last scene where the children carry the lifeless bloodied body of their teacher toward the orphanage entrance.

The Orphanage is a film that achieves the impossible. It tells the narrative of war without showing the war. It shocks and saddens but it makes the viewer laugh and find peace in the innocence and company of the beautiful characters who are so raw and original that each one of them deserve a film of their own.

In the space of three years, in between those cups of tea at the Persian Restaurant and now, Shahrbanoo has become a prudent storyteller. Although like in Wolf and Sheep she still seeks to find the right balance between plotlessness and drama, The Orphanage is a forward thinking movie, an inspiration for the young Afghan filmmakers. It bridges Afghan Cinema’s glorious past to its promising future. It stretches the imagination. It opens doors to optimism. And above all it entertains. A great deal.

Jamaluddin Aram is an Afghan documentary filmmaker, associate producer, and short story writer. He has a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Union College, Schenectady, NY. He lives in Toronto, Canada.