The youngest filmmaker ever selected for Cannes’ Cinefondation Residency, writer-director Shahrbanoo Sadat explores a part of her native Afghanistan a world away from the more common Western perceptions of war zones and terrorist training hubs — as well as from modern civilization in general. Set in the remote mountains of the country’s parched rural center, Wolf and Sheep is an absorbing ethnographic docudrama hybrid, marbled with a curious vein of phantasmagoric storytelling. While Sadat’s visual sense is more assured than her meandering grasp of narrative, this is a distinctive glimpse inside an isolated traditional culture that should continue to find appreciative festival audiences.
Shot by Virginie Surdej on stand-in locations in Tajikistan in a straightforward style that embraces both graceful simplicity and arresting compositional beauty, the film unfolds in a rugged landscape of rocks and rubble and dust. This is where goat herders live in primitive huts of mud and stone, and dried livestock dung is used to fuel cooking fires. Right from the outset, the starkness of life is conveyed as the corpse of a villager who died of cancer is removed on a makeshift stretcher while women natter about the mysteries of death.
That introduces the element of storytelling as an expression of both superstition and escapist imagination. An old man shares a fable of a Kashmiri Wolf that walks upright on two legs and can strip off its skin to liberate a naked green fairy from within. Both those creatures are seen wandering the hills at various points in the film to surreal effect. Wolves are also a more real threat to the pastoral community’s sheep and goats, and the boys constantly practice their skills with long, braided slingshots to ward off predators.
Adults remain on the margins, with most of the day-to-day tending of the flocks done by children, separated along gender lines. Despite their removal from the larger world and its social rules, they are like kids anywhere, with their friendships and rifts, their cliques and ostracized outsiders. Their fights and profane insults also are those of street kids everywhere; it’s amusing to note that the “your mother” line of attack is lingua franca even here.
One female loner, Sediqa, is believed to be cursed, with the other girls spinning gossipy tales about her grandmother breastfeeding a half-dead snake that returned to life and took her eyesight. Alone in the hills, Sediqa forms a touching friendship with one of the boys, Qodrat, the son of the deceased man. His future in the community appears threatened when his mother remarries and wants to send him and his siblings off to live with her sister in a distant town.
All of this is recounted in an observational style with only the loosest of narrative threads. But there are captivating vignettes of life in this lonely place throughout — a child cradling a bleating goat while an adult puts a splint on the animal’s broken leg; the children playing in a shallow mountain lake, the girls remaining fully clothed down to their head coverings; two kids pilfering potatoes and roasting them in the ground; girls feigning sophistication by smoking twigs while fantasizing about marriage.
As a child, Sadat lived for seven years in the region, later moving to Kabul at 18 to study filmmaking. Her respect for the people she’s depicting is unquestionable. Despite the magic-realist elements, she refrains from exoticizing their experience, instead rendering it as everyday life. The credits list only first names for the cast, indicating that the unselfconscious nonprofessional performers are playing versions of themselves.
At the end, news arrives of gunmen approaching, and while their group identity is unspecified — Taliban? ISIS? — the villagers’ hastened flight into hiding closes the film on a solemn note. Even this forgotten place is unsafe from the violence of the contemporary world.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Production companies: Adomeit Films, La Fabrica Nocturna Productions, Film Vast, Zentropa Sweden, Wolf Pictures
Cast: Sediqa Rasuli, Qodratollah Qadiri, Amina Musavi, Sahar Karimi, Masuma Hussaini, Mohammad Amin, Qorban Ali, Ali Khan Ataee
Director-screenwriter: Shahrbanoo Sadat
Producer: Katja Adomeit
Director of photography: Virginie Surdej
Editor: Alexandra Strauss
Not rated, 86 minutes