“The Orphanage” – A Refuge? [MOVIE REVIEW]

“The Orphanage.” Photo courtesy of Virginie Surdej.

“The Orphanage,” a film by female Afghani director/writer Shahrbanoo Sadat, is enlightening in many ways. What could be a depressing look into the abandoned in Afghanistan, is, instead, a film illustrating the French aphorism — the more things change, the more they remain the same.

We first meet 15 year old Qodrat as he enjoys his main pleasure in life, a Bollywood movie that veers from hyper stylized fight sequences to the standard Bollywood flash musical finish with a beautiful young woman, clothed in gold lame, singing and dancing.

Qodrat, homeless, ekes out a living on the streets of Kabul stealing and scalping tickets to the cinema. Apprehended by the police, he, along with several other teens, is sent to the local orphanage. It’s the late 1980s and this is Soviet era Afghanistan. Qodrat enters the school with several others, none of whom has gone beyond the third grade. Their schooling will be thorough, and much of it in Russian.

This is a film about the boys and their relationships. The teachers and director are primarily in the background. With the exception of the oldest student, deemed the “captain,” most everyone gets along. It is, generally speaking a much better life with a possible future than they would have had on the streets. Certainly they have to negotiate around the “captain,” a bully who steals their goods and humiliates them at will, but they are bound together through circumstance and forge friendships and allegiances. It is a “coming of age” only in that age continues to come.

“The Orphanage.” Photo courtesy of Virginie Surdej.

This is a story of their day to day life, one that is mundane and rather free of drama, despite the civil war going on around them. They are barely touched by any of it. Qodrat and a group of other students who have been studying Russian receive the opportunity to travel to the Soviet Union to be indoctrinated in the wonders of Mother Russia. But these former street children, as grateful as they are for the chance to leave the country and see something new, are non-plussed. They have their world and it is as they want it, small and safe within the perimeter of the orphanage.

Qodrat is particularly good at creating his own fantasy Bollywood. When he daydreams, he and the girl classmate he admires gaze at each other and sing fully orchestrated love songs in the forest. His Bollywood fantasies, especially the one that comes into play at the end, are what keep him going.

Sadat has achieved an almost improvisational feel to her film There is a naturalism to the interaction between the boys and their silent communications reveal more than any dialogue could. They are uniformly good.

Sadat admits that she has sentimentalized this time period when Kabul was relatively free from conflict and a Bollywood cinema culture was thriving. The orphanage and the residents are, to her, a microcosm of Afghan society at that time. When, in the end, the Mujahideen topple the Afghan communist government, what, you might ask, will happen at the orphanage? We know what happened in Afghanistan.

Based on the diary of Anwar Hashimi, a friend of Sadat, this independent film is definitely worth your time and reflection. Although the pandemic has adversely affected movie-going, it has been a boon to the small films that would have been lost in a theater and now have a better chance to be seen through streaming.

Premiering March 2 on VOD.




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