An Outsider's Observations

INTERVIEW. Afghan director Shahrbanoo Sadat's first feature, Danish-produced "Wolf and Sheep," was inspired by her feeling of being an outsider during her childhood in a small isolated village in Central Afghanistan. Her goal was to tell a story that doesn't revolve around war, the election, or other political issues dominating the media, but depicts Afghan everyday life as she knows it. The film is selected for Directors' Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival.

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"Wolf and Sheep". Photo: Virginie Surdej

When Sharhbanoo Sadat, 11 at the time, moved with her family from Teheran, Iran, to a small village in the Bamyan Province in Central Afghanistan in 2001, she felt all alone in the world. Her parents were Afghan refugees and were thrilled to return to their childhood home after 40 years. But for Sadat, the transition from big city to village was overwhelming. While her older siblings except one sister were married, she had to stay at home, because there was no girls' school in the area. There was also no TV, radio or mobile phones. So for three years, before she finally got accepted to a boys' high school a three-hour mountain climb away, it was mostly her and the mountains.

When I watched other films about Afghanistan, I always missed something. I know it's a cliché, but I wanted to show the real Afghanistan.

"I felt lost and totally disconnected from everyone. I was in a different culture, and I couldn't really communicate. I had no friends, because I was speaking with a Persian accent. I couldn’t wear my glasses, because people there think only blind people wear glasses, and I was scared it would make me even more of an outsider. I felt stuck and was thinking that I would never get out of there," Sadat, 26 today, remembers.

Seven years of collecting stories

She did get out: At 18, she moved to Kabul to study Cinema and Theater, watched all the films she didn't have access to before and fell in love with directing when she attended a French documentary workshop for young Afghan filmmakers, Atelier Varan Kabul. Her first short "Vice Versa One" was selected at Directors' Fortnight at Cannes in 2011 and was shown at MOMA. She made her next film in CPH:DOX' initiative DOX:LAB, where she was set up with her now-producer Katja Adomeit. The result, "Not at Home," was selected for Rotterdam Film Festival. It was a whole new world. But looking back, she appreciates the perspective and observations her seven years in the village gave her.

"After I came to Kabul and started to read books and watch films, I realised I had a different look on society," she says. "I asked myself where that vision was coming from. At the time, it was painful, but I learned so much from living in the village. I was an outsider, but I was always watching other people and learning about every little thing in people's lives – and how everyone got to know every private detail, since nothing was private there. It was seven years of collecting stories."

 

Sadat's first feature film, "Wolf and Sheep," produced by Danish-based Katja Adomeit, takes place in a rural village like the one Sadat grew up in and follows a group of shepherd children in the mountains. The boys practice with their slings to fight wolves, while the girls smoke secretly and play wedding. They gossip about 11-year-old Sediqa, an outsider, whom they think is cursed. Finally, she makes friends with 11-year Qodrat, who becomes a gossip topic, after his mother remarries with an old man with two wives. The story is inspired by a combination of Sadat's own childhood and the childhood of her best friend, Anwar Hashimi, who lived in the same village before Sadat and had a similar experience of becoming an outsider after his mother remarried.

"When we talked about the village, it was like we were living there in the same time. Nothing had changed. The way people were thinking, and the way they acted. I was an outsider. And he was an outsider. But not in the same time. In the story, I created a fictional time where we lived together."

Afghan life away from war and politics

Afghan cinema, explains Sadat, was popular in the 80's, although in her view, they were rather propagandistic. In the 90's, the Taliban shot all art down. But in 2001, when the Americans entered the country, the international community helped establish a new cinema. Filmmakers from other countries came in, and foreign embassies funded programmes for young Afghan filmmakers. With the money, however, also came a subject. "We would get 10 films about human rights and 10 films about the election. There was nothing personal in there," says Sadat. 

"When I watched other films about Afghanistan, I always missed something. I know it's a cliché, but I wanted to show the real Afghanistan. I wasn't sure how to make a good film, but I knew what I didn't want to make a film about. Women's rights, the election and bombings were all on my blacklist. I wanted a local to see it and say, 'That's my life'.

With all the emphasis Sadat placed on depicting the 'real' Afghanistan, it was quite a blow when she was forced to give up shooting the film in Afghanistan because of the security situation. "I had an international team with me, and I couldn't guarantee their safety," she explains. "It was election time in 2014, and there were explosions in supermarkets and cafes every day. I lost my hearing on one ear, because I was so close to an explosion. I couldn't take that risk for others. But it was a big challenge for me as a person who always criticise other films for not being 'real'."

Building an Afghan village

Sadat and her Danish producer Katja Adomeit decided to shoot in Tajikistan, north of the Afghan border, where the scenery looked like Central Afghanistan. The houses, though, looked completely different, and the people spoke with a different accent. They solution became to build an entire village and bring in an Afghan cast, whom she only got visas for after months of persuasion at the Tajik embassy.

Sadat started casting the children from "Wolf and Sheep" by going to a school and point out the pupils who looked right. "I never cast with video, because the kids are so bad that I'm convinced it won't work. But that's not true – it's just because it's their first time in front of a camera. I know there's another character in there, so I always pick from their faces and work with them," she says.

To convince their parents to let their children go, she brought them along for the adult parts. "I just wanted people who knew the culture, spoke the language and were willing to travel."

She loved working with the children, directing without a script, making them improvise their lines from a situation she created and just letting the camera roll. "They constantly surprised me. I never felt like I was doing a film, I was just having fun with these kids. The sentences they came up with were so funny, and I was happy no one else could understand what they said, because everyone would just be laughing," Sadat says, referring to her international crew that includes Polish director of photography Virginie Surdej, Danish sound recordist Sigrid DPA Jensen, Danish sound designers and mixers Thomas Jæger and Thomas Arent, French editor Alexandra Strauss, French assistant director Samantha Mialet and the only Afghan crew member, second assistant director Anwar Hashimi.

"Wolf and Sheep" is produced by Katja Adomeit from Adomeit Film and is backed by the Danish Film Institute's talent scheme New Danish Screen. The film is co-produced by La Fabrica Nocturna (France), Wolf Pictures (Afghanistan), Zentropa International Sweden (Sweden) and Film Väst (Sweden).

Tags: Cannes 2016