Thursday, March 4, 2021

Afghanistan's kids during the 1980s Russian seige in Shahrbanoo Sadat's THE ORPHANAGE

One of the reasons that we --  well, TrustMovies anyway -- enjoy foreign-language cinema is the often detailed look into different cultures and sometime different time periods that these movies provide. So it is once again with the new film, THE ORPHANAGE, from Afghanistan (a co-production of Denmark, Luxembourg, France, Germany, South Korea, the USA and Afghanistan: it takes a lot to get a movie produced these days!). 
The film is set, as the title card tells us at opening, in Kabul, in 1989, during the pro-Soviet government when the USSR occupied Afghanistan. How smart were the Russians to abandon their little project after nearly a decade (1979-89). The USA is still there, and still losing (as is Afghanistan itself), after almost 20 years. Some people never learn. (Of course, our Defense Department, along with the world's arms merchants, continues to make a killing -- in both senses of the word.)

The film's writer/director is Shahrbanoo Sadat (shown above) and her movie is said to be the first Afghan film made by a female director, which was also a winner at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019. What Ms Sadat gets most right are the many details she provides, while steeping the rest of her viewing world in this -- to us, at least -- very foreign culture.

Who knew, for instance, that Bollywood movies were so popular in Afghanistan under Russian rule? (Bet they ain't under the Mujahideen regime.) Or that Russia provided such decent education, room and board -- even a trip to Mother Russia itself -- for some of the kids in the titular orphanage in which the movie spends so much time? One wonders if Afghan viewers lucky enough to see this film will grow nostalgic for these non-fundamentalist, good old days.

Sure there is the usual bullying by older kids in the home, but Sadat even gives the bullies a scene in which their hopes and dreams (mostly sexual) come to the fore. The film follows the fortunes of movie-obsessed teen Qodrat and a few of the friends he meets, once he is caught selling black-market movie tickets on the street and then placed in the orphanage.

Along the way, we meet the orphanage's kindly administrator, see some education in action, take that Russian trip in which chess games figure prominently, join as the boys explore a Russian tank that has just crashed, and finally see a bit of what happens -- it's awful -- when Mujahideen rule replaces that of Russia. 

Episodic does not begin to describe the movie's structure, while, within that structure the film is a bit too predictable (what happens with that bullet, for instance). Finally, it must  be said that Sadat wastes way too much time offering us fantasy scenes -- martial arts fighting, incipient love, and so forth -- done in Bollywood style with song and dance. 

Whie I am happy to have seen this movie, better that the filmmaker had given us more of those cultural and character details that would have made for increased depth. As it is, by the end of The Orphanage, you realize that the film is a bit too enamored with Qodrat's (and the writer/director's) love of movies than it is with what ought to be its more important content.

From 1844 Entertainment, in Dari, Russian, Hindi, Urdu, with English subtitles, and running 90 minutes, the movie hit VOD this past Tuesday, March 2. You can find it at this link on Amazon Prime Video (it is not, however, free to Prime Video members).

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