The Orphanage (2019)

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The Orphanage is about life in an orphanage, no shock there, but what makes it fascinating is that it’s an orphanage in Afghanistan in the late 1980s while it was under Soviet rule.

Director Shahrbanoo Sadat’s film is based on her friend Anwar Hashimi’s unpublished 800-page diaries, which also inspired her previous film, Wolf and Sheep, the first film ever brought to Cannes by a female Afghan director. A further three instalments of what will ultimately be a pentalogy are planned, so Sadat clearly has faith in the source material.

Qodratollah Qadiri, also a holdover from Wolf and Sheep, plays a hustling street kid in Kabul who is picked up one day by the authorities and plonked down in a Soviet-run orphanage. There he forms alliances with other lads, witnesses episodes of bullying, dreams of girls, and in one particularly notable adventure – given a soft-pedal treatment by director Sadat – he and his new friends find a Soviet tank that’s just been hit by the Mujahideen, who will feature more prominently later.

It is in many ways a fairly standard, cute and charming coming-of-age drama with some very specific local flavours – at one point Qodrat is whisked off to Moscow to a Soviet Pioneer Camp, which doesn’t happen in your average coming-of-age film – but it’s really more interested in these teenagers than the wider political context. These boys live their lives in a kind of intense self-absorption. Like teenagers everywhere.

Breaking that rhythm are Sadat’s occasional digressions into Bollywood, a major obsession in Afghanistan at the time (and still) – the boys have posters of Bollywood stars on their walls. There are three Bollywood-style musical numbers, plus a finale which spectacularly transforms into an Amitabh Bachchan-influenced fight sequence complete with that ridiculously synthetic punch/kick whap! used to mark every blow. Whether with fist or foot or head, always the same sound.

If you’re expecting the Soviets to be the bad guys, think again. In fact the orphanage is run on austere but benign lines, kindly even, though it’s clearly strapped for cash. There’s even a sweet and pretty young teacher direct from the USSR to teach the children Russian. Food is plentiful, if basic, the rooms are simple but clean. The teachers and supervisors (one of them is played, excellently, by diarist Hashimi, who also gets a costume credit – busy guy) seem to be on the kids’ side.

At the Soviet Pioneer camp
Whisked off to a Soviet Pioneer camp

This contrasts massively with the situation when the Soviets leave – cue burning of all evidence they were ever at the orphanage and into the fire go all the books in Russian and posters of Yuri Gagarin. The Mujahideen, spiritual ancestors of the Taliban, take over, the food deteriorates rapidly and suddenly all the female staff are wearing an awful lot more clothes than they were. It gets worse, much worse.

Even so, in spite of the fact that these bloody battles were the stuff of news reports on a global scale day in day out in the 1980s, it’s still at bottom a film about Qodrat and his friends Fayaz, Feraji, Karan Jeet, Hasib, loose-limbed performers all. Sadat’s working method was to under-rehearse her leads and send them charging into each scene armed only with a skeletal idea of what was required – which probably explains why character name and actor name are the same. Keep it simple.

The Bollywood numbers are brilliantly executed, the action suddenly cutting from the sea shore to a forest, the way 1980s Bollywood did it, the camera zooming in madly from a distance. More of it would have been a bonus, because for all The Orphanage’s many charms, and its summoning of a particular place at a particular time, there is a distinct lack of “stakes”. This may be true to the source material, and makes sense both as a corrective to the anti-Soviet and issue-driven agenda of so many films set in Afghanistan but it does little to liven things up.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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