When Shahrbanoo Sadat was 11 years old, her father decided to move their family from Tehran, where Sadat had been born and raised, back to his village in central Afghanistan. It was 2001, soon after the Taliban government had been ousted from power. For the next seven years, Sadat struggled to fit into her surroundings. “The village was really small and isolated, completely disconnected from the rest of world. There was no electricity, no transport vehicles, no Internet and not even any signal for phone. I was an outsider kid with no friends,” she said in an email interview. “On top of all that, I couldn’t see very well. I received a pair of glasses just a week before we moved to Afghanistan. But because the people in the village thought that only blind people used glasses, I could never wear them.” The experience left her with a deep understanding of the workings of Afghan society, as well as the value of observation.
Both these elements form the spine of her film, Wolf and Sheep, which was screened at the prestigious Directors Fortnight section that runs parallel to the Cannes Film Festival. The debut feature bagged an Art Cinema award at the event. At the age of 26, Sadat is already a seasoned hand at the venue. Her first short film, Vice Versa One, was also part of Directors Fortnight in 2011. And the year before that, she was selected for a Cannes Cinefondation Residency, where she developed the idea for her first feature. She was then 20.
Sadat’s first real experience with films came when she turned 18 and moved to the capital city, Kabul, to study. “By accident,” she recalled, she ended up studying cinema. However, the programme at Kabul University failed to make an impact on her. “I could say I didn’t learn a single word there, that’s why I never finished it.”
In 2009, Sadat was selected to participate in a documentary workshop run by Atelier Varan, a French organisation working with observational cinema “They were talking about cinema vérité”, an idea that seemed immediately familiar to Sadat. “For my entire life, I had an observational look at almost everyone and everything and now this [style of] cinema was talking to me about truth and real life and [about] looking at people with no labels and no judgment.”
After making a documentary with Atelier Varan, Sadat shot her first short feature, Vice Versa One, in 2010 with a budget of 100 dollars. “I was [a complete] amateur at the time, actually maybe that helped me as I didn’t feel I was doing something difficult,” she said. “With a friend who had a car and her sister to assist her, Sadat went to the location and shot the film in a day. She edited the footage during the slack morning hours at the TV station she worked in at the time. The film helped her discover her own particular style of work: of using the tools of documentary craft to tell different stories.
“It’s hard for me or my audience to claim my films as fiction or documentary,” she said. “I took the elements I love from cinema vérité and transferred them all to fiction cinema. I usually work with kids, with animals. I shoot in one take, one long take, and sometimes [shoot for] one hour. I believe in [the] first take. I love to work with non-professionals, real people. I don’t use any make up, or any costumes, I don’t use any lights on the set. I don’t use any script while shooting. My actors are free to talk and to do whatever they want. I keep talking to them while shooting.”
Wolf and Sheep delves into the world of children in a small village. They tend to the sheep and form cliques and friendships, already aware of gender boundaries. A little girl, Sediqa, who is believed to be cursed, forms a bond with Qodrat, who faces the threat of being sent off to a distant town after his mother remarries. There is also the fable of a wolf that walks on two legs. His fleece is said to house a naked green fairy, and both wander the mountains around the village.
These elements of surreal imagery were an integral part of her plot for Sadat. “People in rural Afghanistan and in my village believe in many stories,” she said. “For me talking about them was never a part of the fantasy element but actually the documentary element.”
For several years, Sadat dreamed of shooting the film on location in Afghanistan. After patiently waiting for the security situation to get better, last year she decided to move the production to neighbouring Tajikistan. Working as her own art director, she recreated the Afghan village over a period of two months. At around the same time, she recalled, the Taliban captured areas in northern Afghanistan, near the border with Tajikistan. In these conditions, the young director had to try to secure visas for her cast of 38 villagers, none of whom had previous acting experience. After months of effort, she succeeded and managed to shoot her film in a valley in Tajikistan. “Now I know that it doesn’t matter if I couldn’t shoot the film in Afghanistan,” she said. “The only thing matters is that you must have enough knowledge for recreating things.”
While Sadat is one of the few female directors and scriptwriters working from Afghanistan, she prefers to turn the focus on her work rather than herself. “I like to talk about a different Afghanistan, not a dark [version] or bright [version], but a truer version of the country,” she said about her film's reception at Cannes. “Everyone said to me, ‘Your film was very far away from the picture of Afghanistan we had in our mind,’ and of course I was happy to hear that.”
Over the past few years, and especially after the withdrawal of international troops in 2014, Sadat's homeland has seen an exodus of sorts, with many filmmakers and artistes departing the country for a variety of reasons. Besides the deteriorating security, the lack of funding and outlets for films has prompted several of her peers to seek refuge in places like Germany, France, Canada or Iran. But Sadat is determined to stay in Afghanistan and make films from there. “I want to tell stories no one can tell except me. I want to work harder with more passion and more love and respect for my job,” she said. “I have a dream and I want to fight for it so hard. Yes I am a dreamy person but why not.”