Filmed with an intimate realism that feels as authentic as any documentary, Shahrbanoo Sadat’s The Orphanage is a compelling drama about life in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, near the end of the country’s Soviet era. Like Sadat’s first feature, Wolf and Sheep, it’s based on the unpublished diaries of Anwar Hashimi, and it offers a closely observed portrait of real teen life in this specific time and place.
The film picks up the story of Qodrat (Quodratollah Qadiri) some time after the events of Wolf and Sheep; he’s now 15 and living in Kabul, rather than a remote village. He gets by selling odds and ends and scalping tickets to Bollywood movies until the authorities hand him over to a state-run facility (the titular orphanage) where he makes new friends, nurses a crush, and attends school. Overseeing much of what goes on is supervisor Anwar (Hashimi), who’s popular with the boys he cares for. But change is coming to Afghanistan, and it will have a painful impact on Qodrat and his compatriots.
Day-to-day life at the orphanage has moments both happy and sad, from a group trip to a Soviet-run camp to the tragic, unexpected loss of a friend. Sometimes Qodrat escapes into fantasy, imagining himself and those around him performing musical Bollywood numbers as a way to express his biggest feelings. But most of the film is a fly-on-the-wall look at Qodrat and his peers navigating their daily life, re-creating a tumultuous period in recent Afghanistan history — and in their own journey to adulthood.
Sadat — who makes a point of working with non-actors — captures moving, convincing performances from her cast, many of whom end up playing versions of themselves (albeit in ’80s styles). The rapport among Qodrat and the other boys at the orphanage feels absolutely real. Like 2017’s My Life as a Zucchini, which also takes place in an orphanage and has similar themes, it blends pathos and humor to build a powerful empathy for its characters and their experiences. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Loren King This surprising and moving coming of age story, set in Afghanistan in 1989 as the occupying USSR falls to the Islamist mujahideen, is a place and time rarely captured in a film. Afghan director Shahrbanoo Sadat based the film on the unpublished diaries of Anwar Hashimi, who plays himself in the supporting role of the paternal supervisor of an orphanage/school filled with unruly but mostly likable boys who have lost one or both parents in the war. One is 15-year-old Qodrat (Qodratollah Qadiri), a street kid caught reselling cinema tickets in Kabul. He adjusts to the crowded orphanage where teen boys play soccer, talk about hot teachers, and investigate an abandoned Soviet army tank and ransack it for bullets. In one inspired sequence, theY visit Moscow as a group where they pay their respects at Lenin’s tomb and attend a pioneer camp to learn chess. Sadat keeps the tone off balance by cutting the gritty documentary scenes with Qodrat’s Bollywood-inspired musical fantasies. It makes sense that the boy who enjoyed an over-the-top action movie at the start of The Orphanage would find solace in colorful music interludes as events in his young life turn increasingly harrowing. Sadat’s original approach provides psychological insight as well as offers a compelling contrast between familiar cinematic fantasy and bleak neorealist imagery
Sherin Nicole In this almost Stand by Me of late 80s Afghanistan, writer/director Shahrbanoo Sadat explores survival, and both the quiet and the shattering moments of life as an orphaned teenage boy. Shot with the palette of the time and the sensitivity of documentary, inside The Orphanage itself we find a microcosm of the world; bullying, hierarchies, and performance anxieties persist, but friendships also abound. What struck me most are the main character’s Bollywood dreams. Each stage of his life is reflected in the action or the romance of the melodrama of that genre. Therefore, within the commentary on how much leadership matters—which is a vivid reflection of our current times—we also see the impact of art and cinema. In that way, this coming-of-age story is enriched by those Bollywood films, which become not only a coping mechanism but a hope to light the way forward.
Nikki Baughan: Shahrbanoo Sadat‘s follow-up to her 2016 debut Wolf & Sheep is a sensitive, engaging portrait of adolescence in 1980s Afghanistan. The Orphanage centers on homeless teenager Quodrat (Qodratollah Qadiri) – who features as a younger boy in Wolf & Sheep – who, having been caught by the authorities scalping cinema tickets on the streets, is sent to the titular Soviet-funded institution. As he attempts to navigate the rituals of life in this place which initially seems to offer something of a shaky sanctuary, the film uses endearing Bollywood-style numbers to portray Quodrat’s fears, desires and emotions as he struggles to find his place in a country without a strong identity; one that is, like Quodrat himself, at the whims of turbulent external forces.
Susan Wloszczyna: Boys will be boys, no matter what their nationality or beliefs. That thought resounded in my head throughout The Orphanage, a coming-of–age tale that is the second cinematic chapter of a planned five-part series directed by Afghan director Shahrbanoo Sadat. The time is 1989 and the place is Kabul. That’s where we first meet 15-year-old movie fan and street kid Qodrat (Qodratollah Qadri) who earns his keep by selling key chains and scalping movie tickets. Read full review.
Leslie Combemale In writer/director Shahrbanoo Sadat’s The Orphanage, what is most striking and engaging is the verité style in which the life of 15 year old Qodrat is captured while he navigates the day to day experience of a Soviet-run detention center. He finds his tribe, 4 other boys trying to survive adolescence, both literally and figuratively, and they comfort, goad, and tease each other through their experiences, which run from the horrifying to the banal. Fantastical scenes of the more idyllic or proactive life Quodrat dreams of are interspersed like scenes from one of the movies he loves, and it is this visual expression of his inner life that reveals to viewers the suffering and grief this young man endures.
Jennifer Merin Emotionally engaging, The Orphanage presents a picture of the hardship and deprivation that youngsters around the world endure when they are orphaned or abandoned due to war and poverty. Qodrat’s story may be a very specific one, but it has universal relevance. The Orphanage is an impactful reminder that we humans need to change our ways to protect our children and their future. Read full review.
Nell Minow: Like the Antoine Doinel films of Francois Truffaut, Shahrbanoo Sadat and Anwar Hashimi are creating not just a series of films but a life story, based on Hashimi’s life and staring Qodratollah Qadiri. Sadat skillfully blends the disparate threads of the story by focusing on the perspectives of the teenage boy. Like all teenagers, he has to find friends he can trust and he sometimes filters what he sees through the lens of the movies he enjoys or the dreams of his future. But he also faces the surreal violence of late 1980s Afghanistan in a context very different from that most Americans will expect.
Pam Grady: A 15-year-old boy comes of age in a Soviet orphanage in Shahrbanoo Sadat’s arresting, musically tinged drama. It is the late 1980s, the waning days of the Russian occupation of Aghanistan. For Qodrat, caught outside of a cinema scalping tickets, the place represents a fresh start. There are challenges, especially with rampant bullying that has a profound effect on some of the kids. But for Qodrat, formerly isolated and alone, new friends means bonds that approximate a family. The second of a series of films based on the unpublished memoirs of Anwar Hashimi – who plays the role of the orphanage’s empathetic supervisor – is almost documentary-like at times in its observations of the lives of Qodrat and his friends. The story Sadat has written, though, is as much about the movie-loving boy’s imagination as his life. At key moments, he envisions himself in Bollywood production numbers, no longer an anonymous teen in state care but the hero of his journey. In a life and a political situation that are so uncertain, these flights of fancy are transcendent interludes as Qodrat allows himself to dare to dream – and to hope.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Director Shahrbanoo Sadat’s second film based on TK’s unpublished memoirs of growing up in Afghanistan in the 1980s is centered around Qodrat (Qodratollah Qadiri), a movie-obsessed teen who, along with a few other boys, is sent to a Soviet-run orphanage. Like in any residential program for teens, there are bullies, crushes on cute classmates and young teachers, fast friendships, petty squabbles, adventures, and tragedies. Sadat’s storytelling is fabulous, immersing us in the lives of these slightly unknowable boys making the best of a difficult situation. The best part of the film is that Qodrat routinely breaks into dream-like fantasies straight out of Bollywood films. The musical reveries help express the stoic boy’s robust inner life, since he must play it cool among the boys of the orphanage. Even audiences unfamiliar with Wolf and Sheep, should start now with this touching and heart-wrenching sequel.
Cate Marquis Writer/director Shahrbanoo Sadat continues her tale of a young Afghan boy, begun in her acclaimed drama Wolf and Sheep, with The Orphanage, with the same young non-actor in the lead role of this surprisingly engaging tale of Afghanistan before the Taliban, as told from a child’s point-of-view. Now a teenager, the orphaned Qodrat (Qodratollah Qadiri) lives on the streets of Soviet-era Kabul, where he sells trinkets and scalps movie tickets, and watches Bollywood action movies whenever he can. Picked up by authorities, he is sent to a Soviet-style orphanage but it turns out not to be all bad – he’s in school, has food and clothes, and best of all, makes friends. While event are told in a kid-centric, cinema-verite style, and are based on the diaries of Anwar Hashimi, (who plays a kindly headmaster), Qodrat’s inner life is periodically portrayed by Bollywood-like fantasy sequences, among the most charming parts of the film. It evolves into a sort of adventure story – brought to a halt when the Taliban displace the Soviets.
Title: The Orphanage
Director(s}: Shahrbanoo Sadat
Release Date: March 5, 2021
Running Time: 90 minutes
Language: Afghan, with English subtitles
Screenwriter: Shahrbanoo Sadat
Distribution Company: 1844 Entertainment
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin