Shahrbanoo Sadat Reflects on Showing a Different Side of Afghanistan in “The Orphanage”

Interview by Gabriela Rico

Shahrbanoo Sadat is an Afghan writer and director based in Kabul. Her first feature film, “Wolf and Sheep,” was developed with the Cannes Cinéfondation Residence in 2010. Twenty years old at the time, she was the youngest director ever selected for the program. “Wolf and Sheep” won the main award at Directors’ Fortnight 2016 and was nominated for awards at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, the Chicago International Film Festival, and CPH:DOX, among others. Sadad recently won the Baumi Script Development Award for her next feature, “Kabul Jan,” which will be pitched at the Berlinale Co-Production Market.

“The Orphanage” premiered at the 2019 edition of Cannes Film Festival. The drama is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

This interview was originally published in May 2019.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

SS: In the late ’80s in Kabul, Qodrat, a 15-year-old street child, is selling cinema tickets on the black market for Bollywood movies. He is a film fan and doesn’t miss any [releases]. One day the police catch him, and he ends up in the only Soviet orphanage in Kabul. He goes to school, takes Russian classes, and even visits Moscow and meets Lenin, the mummy, in his mausoleum during a pioneer summer camp.

While Qodrat lives his everyday life in the orphanage, the Afghan-Soviet war rages all over country. The only peaceful place left is Kabul. Soon Soviet troops leave the country and the Mujahideen, who fought against the Afghan pro-Soviet government and Soviets for almost 10 years, take power. They occupy Kabul and start filling the governmental seats one after another. One group enters the orphanage, and Qodrat and children have to face them.

The story is inspired by my close friend Anwar Hashimi’s memories from the eight years of his life in the orphanage, from 1984-1992. During the film, Qodrat daydreams and imagines himself in Bollywood scenes where he lip-syncs the songs in Hindi-Urdu and expresses the feelings he doesn’t dare to voice in his real life.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

SS: I had access to 800 pages of the text my friend Anwar wrote in which he remembers his life [over] the last four decades in the most simple, honest, personal, poetic way possible. For me, reading his story was reading the dramatic, chaotic history of Afghanistan from a point of view I had never heard.

I fell in love with his text immediately and I decided to make a pentalogy inspired by it. I made the first part, “Wolf and Sheep,” in 2016 and “The Orphanage” is the second part. I’m working on parts three and four right now.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

SS: I want people to see a different story from Afghanistan, where clichés have no place. I wish more people like Anwar could share their own stories. Afghans have a very dramatic life in every sense because of the situation of the country, but they are not aware of the importance of their stories, I think.

When it comes to Afghanistan, international and even Afghan filmmakers think they should talk about big, huge subjects in a very obvious way. In my opinion, Afghanistan is a virgin. And for sure Afghanistan deserves better stories. I [hope] — for Afghanistan and myself — that one day we find our own language of cinema to share all these untold stories with the world.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

SS: When it comes to making a film about Afghanistan with an [Afghan] director, a non-actor cast coming from Afghanistan, and a location that should look similar to Afghanistan, and the concept of the film has nothing to do with Danish, French, German, or any other European [culture] — i.e. the places you expect to get some money from — you end up with a project that gets rejected everywhere. I think [producer] Katja Adomeit is a hero for managing to make this film happen.

After financing, a visa problem occurred. I cast non-actors from Afghanistan, and we flew them over to Tajikistan, where we shot the film. There was a time I spent a year doing nothing related to filmmaking. I looked more as if I was working for a travel agency: preparing ID cards, passports, visas for Tajikistan, and visas for Pakistan.

All the embassies in Kabul were shut down, and to apply for the Schengen visa I had to take my cast to the embassy in Pakistan, but to go to Pakistan, I needed visas first. That visa situation depended on the political situation of Pakistan and Afghanistan. As we had 10 days of shooting in Europe, getting Schengen visas for my main cast was very difficult.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

SS: We had a big problem obtaining funding from a major country. In this case, Afghanistan could not be the majority producer because there is not a source of money from Afghanistan. Denmark rejected our applications one after another. Finally, after six applications, we got some money from Denmark [as a minor producer]. Katja had to open a new company in Germany to be able to get more money from there.

I’m very grateful for Europe supporting me as an artist and letting me make films, but sometimes I feel like I don’t get enough support, and neither does Katja as a young, talented producer who dares to work on tough projects.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

SS: I stepped into the world of filmmaking by accident. I passed the wrong entry exam for university. I wanted to study physics, and I ended up in cinema and theater. Anyway, I never finished, but I was lucky enough to get into a French workshop called Ateliers Varan. I studied the basics of documentary cinema there with the special focus on cinéma vérité. I started to dream about making films there.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

SS: The worst advice came from some European crew members, who were not made for shooting films in developing countries with no cinema industry.

The best was to get Anwar to play the role of the supervisor in the film. That was the advice that I gave to myself.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

SS: No matter what, keep making films. No matter what, fight for your ideas and do not minimize yourself in any way. That’s what I have learned so far.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

SS: Agnès Varda, for the reason I just talked about it in the question above. She was a filmmaker who kept going no matter what. She made films in the way she wanted to. She chose subjects only if she thought their stories were important. She didn’t stop, and that’s a value.

W&H: It’s been over a year since the reckoning in Hollywood and the global film industry began. What differences have you noticed since the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements launched?

SS: By accident, I have been working with a female crew since the production of my last film, “Wolf and Sheep,” in 2015. I have a female producer, a female director of photography, female sound designers, a female editor, female production designers, female assistants, etc.

What surprised me was that this did not help our film applications in any way even though everywhere the talk of the day was equality and gender. Working with a female crew in key positions was not a bonus for any of those funds.

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