A Film a Week - The Orphanage / Parwareshghah

 previously published on Asian Movie Pulse

After her successful debut “Wolf and Sheep” (2016), which premiered to awards at Cannes’ Quinzanne selection, the only female filmmaker from Afghanistan to achieve such success, Shahrbanoo Sadat, got back to the festival circuit with its follow-up “The Orphanage”, the intended second instalment of the pentalogy based on the diaries of her writer friend Anwar Hashimi. It premiered last year at the same section of Cannes, before heading up on a long festival tour with the last stop (for now at least) at Zagreb Film Festival, where it played in the main competition.

The slightly fantastical drama “Wolf and Sheep” was partly centred around the boy named Qodrat (Quodratollah Qadiri) and his growing up in rural Afghanistan. In “The Orphanage”, we follow him through his teenage years spent in the titular institution in the country’s capital Kabul at the dusk of the Soviet rule there. We meet him (the non-professional actor Qadiri replays the role once again) at the movie theatre while watching a Bollywood flick. The theatre does not play just the role in his entertainment, but it is a work place of sorts for him: he lives on the streets and earns money by selling knick-knacks on the streets and “scalping” the tickets for the sold-out shows. That gets him in trouble and he ends up in a Soviet-style orphanage operated by Anwar (Anwar Hashimi).

Together with the rest of the new boys, he has to adapt to the completely new “lifestyle” dictated by the power games on both the official and unofficial level. For the purpose of schooling, he has to learn the Russian language and the dreaded Cyrillic alphabet, while in the orphanage he has to deal with the regular troubles in the form of bullies. The turbulent times are approaching, as the Soviet Union goes towards its demise, but the politics play a small part in the lives of the teen orphans. They are more interested in the girls of the same age and even in the younger teachers, and Qodrat often dreams in the “Bollywood” colours and tunes, being finally the hero of his own story. Towards the end of the film, they will all be caught up in the harsh reality…

The Orphanage” is basically the series of the chronologically ordered, but loosely connected vignettes from Hashimi’s diaries, so it is hard to speak of the plot. However, Sadat is at his best in interconnecting the reality and the fantasy world of her protagonist, coding both of them clearly and beautifully, creating a familiar, yet original sense of the atmosphere and growing up in a very specific world.

The country of Tajikistan, where the most of the exterior scenes were shot, plays the role of Kabul compellingly, due to its specific architecture and culture that is the mixture of the Central Asian and Soviet. Sadat pays the close attention to the details of the location and the period, which pays off also thanks to the technical aspects of the film, like Virginie Surdej’s cinematography and Alexandra Strauss’ rhythmical editing.

Acting-wise, “The Orphanage” is a decent film and the director’s decision to work with the non-professional cast proves to be the right one. Quodratollah Qadiri has a head-start here in the way, based on his previous film experience with the director, but also because of the fact that his character was the most developed in the bunch, while the others are usually relegated to a limited number of traits and are more fitting into a group than standing out as individuals.

The Orphanage” is an interesting and fresh film experience that profits from its unique setting and the infusions of the Bollywood fantasy, despite its core story being somewhat generic.

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