Afghan director and writer Shahrbanoo Sadat’s The Orphanage sees a mixed fantasy and realism story of living in Kabul before the fade of Soviet communist rule in 1989. Sadat’s second feature in a five-part series, picks up from 2016’s Wolf & Sheep.
Young Quodratollah Qadiri is Qodrat again, now fifteen years old and living on the streets. The first shot opens of him sleeping in an abandoned car. When he rises, there’s not much to do except sell key chains and black-market movie tickets for Bollywood movies to get by.
But enjoyment is found, and though Qodrat is pensive by nature, the radiating joy of his face as he soaks up the brash sights and sounds of an Urdu musical number in 1988’s Shahenshah in a Kabul theatre transforms him. It’s an elated spectacle, watching an audience of grown men join in with him, jumping out of their seats to dance and clap, which paves the way into a neat transition of the next scene.
Caught peddling in the town square, Qodrat is chased and taken in by the cops and driven to a Russian-run orphanage with several other boys. Here, he finds structure and established hierarchies integral to institutionalised life. Russian classes, powerplay punch-ups, teenage chats of restlessness and lust, all stretch out over time in the school rooms, corridors and bunk bedrooms. Strong friendships also develop and a bonding trip in the summer to Moscow sees some light-hearted fun and casual Russian proselytization.
Anwar Hashimi, a friend of Sadat’s, whose unpublished memoirs inspired the story, features as the orphanage supervisor. His presence and performance is comforting, firm and kind.
The stand-out scenes are the kind of cheesy but cool dream sequences of Bollywood-type musical numbers channelled by Qodrat’s imagination, because escapism rules in life during wartime, especially in a country now on the brink of shifting political forces.
After a war-blurred ten years, a changing of the guard is coming and Afghanistan will see a new kind of turmoil. After USSR withdrawal and the imminence of Islamist mujahedeen control, what happens to Qodrat and his chums leaves an uneasy feeling when warlord commanders enter the city and the annals of history ultimately tells us the rest.