The Orphanage can be flat and predictable for stretches, but it also tilts its formalism toward a playful character enough to suggest Sadat is worth continuing to watch.
The Orphanage is the second feature by Afghani director Shahrbanoo Sadat, and it also happens to be her second feature to play Directors Fortnight (this one in 2019, her previous film Wolf and Sheep in 2016). It’s sadly rare for western audiences to see much cinema out of Afghanistan, the American government and its European allies having spent decades ensuring that the country remains in a state of political tumult unideal for the growth of a healthy film industry. Lack of public funding or a privatized structure for film development make it challenging to make a career out of film directing in Afghanistan, so it is exciting that Sadat seems to be doing so (with the assistance of a Danish producer and funding), and without telling stories catering to western notions of her country (in interviews she decries this proclivity in contemporary, popular Afghan cinema).
The Orphanage is a loose sequel to Wolf and Sheep, both of which are meant to be the first two entries in a pentalogy drawing from the diaries of Sadat’s friend and collaborator Anwar Hashimi (who plays a key role in the film), his writings and memories aligning with key moments in Afghanistan’s recent history. This particular chapter covers a stretch of time at the end of the 1980s as Soviet control over Afghanistan was coming to a violent end, the result of a decade’s worth of guerrilla conflict with CIA and MI6 backed Mujahideen militia. This upheaval serves as the backdrop for a coming-of-age/loss-of-innocence narrative focusing on the adolescent Qodrat (Quodratollah Qadiri), who initially runs ticket scams at Bollywood cinemas before eventually being sent to a Soviet orphanage, and, for a brief interlude, Moscow as part of an exchange program. These proceedings are mostly shot in a candid, vérité style that does the film a bit of a disservice, unfortunately, though Sadat draws upon the protagonist’s relationship with Bollywood to produce two charming approximations of musical numbers (and a fight scene) in their formal style, and in specific homage to Tinnu Anand’s Shahenshah. Such sequences are inventive and break up some of the film’s drier stretches and more rote moments of dramaturgy and narrativization — Au Revoir les Enfants or Hope and Glory feel like major reference points — and one hopes that future projects will provide more opportunity for this type of aesthetic playfulness. As it stands, The Orphanage is almost competently made to a fault, curiously predictable for a film based on unpublished memoirs, but in the Bollywood sequences and in the film’s final scene — an amusing disruption of an aforementioned film’s ending — one can see something more intriguing and subversive at work.
You can currently stream Shahrbanoo Sadat’s The Orphanage on Amazon.