'The Orphanage' ('Parwareshgah'): Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A minor but moving coming-of-age drama set in a difficult time and place.

'Wolf and Sheep' director Shahrbanoo Sadat's second feature, set in Afghanistan at the close of the 1980s, premiered in the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes.

In writer-director Shahrbanoo Sadat’s second feature, a young man who daydreams of action-packed Bollywood heroics finds himself in a considerably more dangerous position in real life: that of an orphan scraping by in Kabul at the end of the 1980s, with the Soviets maintaining control as the Mujahideen fight to take their land back. 

Part two of a planned five-part series that began with 2016’s Wolf and Sheep — which, like this movie, premiered in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight — The Orphanage (Parwareshgah) is a small yet touching chronicle where innocent teenage boys fall prey to socio-political forces way beyond their control.

Mixing historical docudrama and make-believe, the story is not exactly a tightly knit narrative, with an observant tone that has its nonprofessional cast oscillating between scenes of harsh reality and pure film fantasy. It should play more festivals after Cannes and nab a few art house pickups abroad, especially in Europe.

Qodratollah Qadiri, who also toplined Wolf and Sheep and is poised to become Sadat’s very own Antoine Doinel if the two keep working together, stars as Quodrat, a friendly streetwise teenager who makes a modest living reselling tickets to his favorite Bollywood flicks, which he himself sits and watches with wide-eyed appreciation.

When he’s rounded up by the cops and sent to a public orphanage, Quodrat’s life shifts from a carefree hand-to-mouth existence to a stricter hierarchy ruled by bullies and overseen by a kindhearted administrator (Sediqa Rasuli). He soon befriends a group of boys who become his roommates, including the chess master, Masihullah (Masihullah Feraji), his nephew Fayaz (Ahmad Fayaz Omani) — the uncle and nephew are both teens — and the war-obsessed Hasib (Hasibullah Rasooli).

Together, the four live through several Little Rascals-style adventures, forgetting where they are for the time being and enjoying themselves like any boys left to their own devices. Sadat mixes those scenes with Bollywood-inspired flights-of-fancy where Quodrat and his buddies lip-sync to gushy ballads or showcase the fighting skills of action superstars like Anil Kapoor. (In the press notes, the director explains how Bollywood movies were hugely popular in Kabul during the 1980s.)

But those illusions hide a grimmer truth, with one boy going mad and locked up in a wretched psych ward, and another accidentally killed by leftover ammunition stolen from a Russian tank. As much as Quodrat can imagine movies in his mind, what he sees in the real world is far scarier: a place where orphans like him seem to be expendable.

Sadat cuts a little too systematically between the reality and fantasy scenes throughout the narrative, which heads to some predictable places despite the unique setting. The most memorable thing about The Orphanage is actually not all the movie make-believe, which feels like a device used before, but rather the way it shows how life under Soviet rule could in fact be beneficial for boys in Quodrat’s situation.

This is most evident in a long sequence where the orphans take a trip to a summer camp in the Soviet Union, working on their Russian (which they are already learning back in Afghanistan) and partaking in various activities, as if they were regular kids and not orphans at all. Probably the most moving shot in the entire film is one where we see Masihullah’s reaction after playing computer chess for the first time and beating the machine — it’s a rare victory in an otherwise depleted life.

Like Wolf and Sheep, Sadat shot the movie in Tadjikistan, mixing natural splendors with the starker institutional interiors. A grainy look makes the film feel like it was actually made in the 80s, adding to its historical authenticity. When, at the end, the orphanage risks tumbling along with the Soviet regime, you’re left with the harrowing feeling that for Quodrat and his friends, it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Production company: Adomet Films ApS
Cast: Qodratollah Qadiri, Sediqa Rasuli, Masihullah Feraji, Hasibullah Rasooli, Ahmad Fayaz Omani
Director-screenwriter: Shahrbanoo Sadat, based on the unpublished diary of Anwar Hashimi
Producer: Katja Adomeit
Director of photography: Virginie Surdej
Editor: Alexandra Strauss
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Sales: Luxbox

In Dari, Russian, Hindi
90 minutes