by Christine Westwood

Shahrbanoo “Shahr” Sadat was born in Tehran but when she was 11 her family relocated to a remote village in Afghanistan where she lived for 7 years before moving to Kabul to pursue filmmaking.

“When I went to live in the village in Afghanistan, it was hard,” she says from Kabul. “I had no feeling or connection with the country, I lived as an outsider. Every day I wished I could get out. But later, when I had moved to the city and watched films, and read books, I realised I had real knowledge of Afghanistan because of all those years spent there. In fact, I had a more pure perspective than most about the values and beliefs of ordinary Afghan villagers. Being an outsider gave me a very observational viewpoint.”

Shahr was also fired up to tell her own stories by what she read and saw of coverage about Afghanistan. “I get so angry at the way Afghanistan is portrayed in the media. It’s all clichés about war and politics, nothing about how people really are. I wanted to use a cinema vérité approach. I want people to look at my version of Afghanistan through everyday life – very simple and universal stories.”

Shahr’s producer is Katja Adomeit, the founder of a Danish film company, Adomeit Films. She was able to help the young filmmaker attract money from several European funding bodies as well as a crowdfunding campaign that raised $10,000 in a month. Adomeit knows she is backing a significant new talent. Shahr’s first short fiction film Vice Versa One was selected at the Cannes Film Festival Directors’ Fortnight (2011) and shown at MOMA. She made Not At Home, a hybrid project that was developed and produced within a year with the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival’s initiative DOX: LAB and was selected for the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2014.

In 2013, Shahr created her own production company Wolf Pictures, in Kabul and her first feature Wolf and Sheep came into being. The film was developed with the Cannes Cinefondation Residency when Shahr was just 20 years old, the youngest filmmaker ever selected for the residency, and the first Afghan female director.

“The biggest challenge for me was that I couldn’t shoot my film in Afghanistan,” Shahr says.

In the end, she re-located her crew to Tajikistan, the closest place and most similar landscape Sharh could findto the original village location. At preproduction, the Taliban took over the north of Afghanistan and Tajikistan, closing the borders and blocking visas for Afghans – including the 38 cast members Shahr had hired to populate the on-screen village. Months and much paperwork later, filming finally began.

Winner of the Directors’ Fortnight’s top award, the art cinema prize, Wolf and Sheep draws us into the world of the village through its simple, clearly observed cinematography. The evoking of daily life is achieved with a naturalism in the acting and dialogue that is often rude and direct.

There is no sentimental filter as we follow the story of two outsiders, a boy Qodrat and a girl Sediqa. In the tribal lore of the village, girls and boys follow different paths. The boys practice expertise with their slingshots so they can defend the sheep flock from the ever-present danger of wolves. Girls gossip about married life, the role that will dominate their futures. Qodrat contravenes the rules by teaching Sediqa to use a slingshot, and their friendship sustains them against the pettiness and restrictions of village life, but there is a sad back story that overtakes the boy as the movie progresses.

Good stories tend to show us a specific world while tapping into universal themes. Wolf and Sheep is a perfect example. The village and its acutely observed inhabitants are depicted in a cinema verite style, yet the world mirrors every society that depends on a specific animal as its food source. In these cultures, which includes all civilisations if you go back in time far enough, humans adapt themselves to care for, breed and kill the animals they depend on. Here, the sheep are the wealth, currency and daily work for all members of the village, while the predatory wolves are the symbolic and real dangerous monsters. Village folklore centres on these creatures, a theme that Shahr uses to powerful effect when she weaves in the story of the wolf as told by an older girl to a younger one. The story describes how the wolf sheds its skin and reveals itself as a green fairy, and there is a lovely visual representation that brings a layer of magic realism to the earthy village life.

“I started filmmaking with no background and no academic knowledge,” Sharh explains. “I don’t care about all these rules. I have my own ideas about how a film can be made. I like to work with non-actors. The way I did it was that just before shooting a scene I would describe to each actor, separately, what was supposed to happen in the scene.”

Shahr’s technique, though basic and simple compared to a rarefied Hollywood production, has resulted in scenes that are compelling in their sense of reality, tension and natural emotion.

Sharh says that a key to her creating the story of Wolf and Sheep was meeting a man who had a parallel experience to her own. Aarzoo Burhani had an unpublished journal of his time growing up in an Afghan village.

“Our stories had so many similarities,” Sharh says. It was these similarities that gave her the confidence to create her own story, and it is these same journals that will inspire her next films. “It’s a big project, there are five in the series. Wolf and Sheep is the first.”

A young director with a big vision and an individual approach, Sharh adds, “going forward I want to work with crew that aren’t film people, like non-camera people, just like I work with non-actors. The amount of time and money spent on films is crazy. I think it should be more simple – and more fun!”

Wolf and Sheep will screen at the 2017 Sydney Film Festival.


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