Shahrbanoo Sadat's The Orphanage is exclusively playing on MUBI in most countries from May 14 - June 13, 2020 as part of the series The New Auteurs.
While working on The Orphanage, I was fighting with two clichés. One “orphanage” and the other “Afghanistan." I wanted to show an orphanage where my best friend Anwar Hashimi lived for almost eight years during the years 1984-1992 in Kabul.
The orphanage I wanted to talk about was not one of those orphanages that we see in movies or we read about in books, where children are starving or having a really miserable life, and they get beaten and have to work. It was the opposite.
Before 1984, Anwar was a street kid, selling black market tickets in front of cinema theatres for Bollywood films that were very popular in Afghanistan that time as well as now. He ended up in the Russian orphanage in Kabul where he received three times meal a day, a roof over his head, friends and most importantly, education. He even traveled to the USSR as a pioneer and discovered the big world. Not talking about politics, Anwar loves that period of his life. I wanted to recreate that.
I myself am fond of the history of Afghanistan. I want to make films about Afghanistan but not limited to showing what’s on the surface, instead showing something deeper. I want to dig into the lives of ordinary people and show the mentality and the spirit of Afghanistan and Afghan people. I think Afghanistan is very rich in terms of stories and tales and that the current picture is not a true picture of Afghanistan. Afghanistan deserves a better and more truthful picture. Perhaps I am talking about an Afghan Cinema, something may be formed in the next 50 years or even more.
I cast the actors from 20,000 children in different high schools in Kabul within a year. I cast the main actors, Qodrat and Sediqa (the girl who appears in his dream), from my previous movie, Wolf and Sheep (2016). I also forced Anwar to act in the film. I always had the idea that he should act. When I asked him, he simply said no to me because he was not feeling secure with his face or voice. The more I took pictures of people during the casting, the more I realized Anwar should play in the film. So a few months before shooting, I said to Anwar: "Anwar! I am not asking you this time. I am commanding you. You have to play in the film." He looked at me and said: "Okay!" I think he said okay because he could see how much I wanted him in the film. He finally played the role of the supervisor in The Orphanage. And I should say I am very proud of my cast. Really! I think all my actors did such a great job in the time we had.
We shot the movie in Tajikistan and we shot the musical, Bollywood part in Denmark and we shot the summer camp in USSR in Germany. All of the speaking cast came from Afghanistan, and the non-speaking cast from Tajikistan, Denmark and Germany.
Holding only an Afghanistan passport for my cast and myself took so much time for all the visas. We got rejections over and over until we finally got them. For the Schengen visas, we had to travel to a third country because no embassy in Afghanistan issues Schengen visas. So first, we had to apply for visas for Pakistan and that was also tricky as Pakistan only opens its doors when the political situation is okay with Afghanistan, which is not the case many times a year.
I used my preparations for traveling to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Europe and Tajikistan. There were moments I wished I could copy myself in two or even more, just to be able to be present in different places at the same time to finish the work.
I must say I learned so much with The Orphanage. Anwar and I did the costume design and props and some of the production designs. Also, working with children was fun and enjoyable for me. I was like a mummy running after my kids all over the set. They were difficult sometimes as any other teenagers but no complain. I liked that period.
I am very grateful to Europe for all the support I have gotten so far. Afghanistan itself has not any film industry and I think it’s just great and needed that filmmakers like me can make movies. For me, it’s important to reach to an international language to make films on Afghanistan that makes sense for European audience as much as it makes sense for Afghan audience. Even though in Afghanistan we do not have cinema theatres to play movies and the Afghan audience is not existed yet, I always think while writing script or making films, that I am making movies for Afghan audience, for my friends and for my family. It’s important for me to respect the culture and people and the country. It’s important for me to be an Afghan filmmaker making Afghan films.
The Orphanage is the second part of my pentalogy, all inspired by Anwar Hashimi's 800-page autobiographical unpublished text. Wolf and Sheep was the first part, and I am writing the third part now during the time of the Coronavirus.