Wolf and Sheep is the debut feature from Afghanistan-based filmmaker Shahrbanoo Sadat, and it marks a major shift in how Afghanistan has been depicted on film. Sadat’s refreshing portrait of her country pushes back against the familiar images that have been constructed around Afghanistan in the last several decades — largely by filmmakers based in the West. Beyond this, her film hones in on a non-urban conception of life in Afghanistan; one that hasn’t been affected by time in the same way. It’s a slow-moving work, but this is a speed that moves with the pace of the place. Sadat’s formal influences bleed into the work in subtle ways, and watching these manifestations discreetly emerge becomes one of the great pleasures of Wolf and Sheep. We caught up with Sadat at the Sydney Film Festival to chat about the relationship between her history and her cinema, the movements that have inspired her approach to film, and how she feels Afghanistan has been portrayed on screen — and how her own work seeks to push back against this.
I wanted to start by asking about the elements of your life that have inspired the film, returning from Tehran to the rural, central Afghanistan that you capture in Wolf and Sheep.
My parents, they immigrated to Iran when they were very, very young. My mother was 14 at that time, my father was 16. They just got married and then they moved to Iran because they came from… you know they have this ethnicity, this background, and they were like a minority in Afghanistan and in the history of Afghanistan they received ample violence, massacres, and genocide by other ethnicities, so it was not really easy for them to live in Afghanistan. Then the Soviet era arrived and there was war, so my parents moved to Iran as refugees. My brother and my sisters and me, we were all are born in Iran, but Iran is a kind of country where unless you live there for two centuries, you know, you’re a refugee. They don’t give you any documents so you’re basically a refugee.
I went to school there and when I was 11 years old, the 11 September events happened and, you know, the American and international community have been tough on us and attacked us. Then the Iranian government produced an enormous propaganda campaign through the media, telling us that, “the war in Afghanistan is finished and now it’s time to go back to your country.” So they put on a lot of pressure. They kicked my father out from the factory that he was working in and the school denied to accept me and many other Afghan children studying there by saying that because of your nationality, you’re not allowed to study in this school anymore. So we didn’t have any other way, except to go back to Afghanistan.
I was 11 years when we moved back to Afghanistan and, of course, because my parents were very young when they left it, the only place that they knew, they remembered, was their small village in central Afghanistan where they came from, where they both were born. So they decided that instead of going to a city or going to Kabul they decided we would go to the village in central Afghanistan.
They were very over excited to get back to home. They had a lot of relatives and family. They had a home, fields, farm, abandoned. So for them it was really feeling of going back home and it was their home, but for me it was not my home at all. I didn’t know anything about Afghanistan. I’ve never seen any picture of Afghanistan. I even didn’t talk the language. I was Iranian, but I didn’t have the paper. I mean officially I was not, but I was Iranian. I was born there, went to school there, talked the language. Always I saw all my future in Iran, but suddenly, like in a week, I found myself in the middle of nowhere in Afghanistan, where there is not even a school for me to go.
You know this transition for me, from a city to a very, very extremely isolated village in central, the rural part of Afghanistan was not really easy as a child and it took for me years to learn the language. Of course, I was very afraid to find any friend because I couldn’t communicate. I was just a weird girl coming from a city. No one wanted to talk to me. I spent 7 years there. When I was 18 I moved out to Kabul and I went to university there. I went to a French workshop, where they taught us the basics of documentary cinema and they did workshops in the countries with poor cinema. They’ve been in Afghanistan and Kabul, active since 2004. I was a student in 2009. So it was the first time that I watched some great documentary films.
Yeah and then that cinema was talking to me, directly in my face because you know it was a cinema that was talking about observation and point of view and I was an outsider for all my life until that time. Of course, I never was together with others, I was always outside watching as you know, especially those seven years I was in the village. It was talking about the truth and reality and I really felt very much connected to the language of that cinema. For some reasons, unconsciously, I preferred fiction film.
After graduating from that workshop I was watching a lot of films with the concept of Afghanistan or about Afghanistan. I didn’t really feel connected to those films because, for me, not as a film maker but as a local, as a viewer, I was thinking that these films they’re a little bit fake and they’re not really talking about the reality that we local people we are experiencing, it’s only their imagination of Afghanistan. You know?
Yeah, that these films didn’t really represent Afghanistan to you?
You know it feels like… the point of view was very shallow and very clichéd. You know it’s like, “Okay what do we know about Afghanistan? Afghanistan is a war country. Okay.” Then it’s a fact. Then they come up with some facts like you know they’d be talking about the human rights, and women’s rights, and jobs and elections, important issues that they think the world is interested in. They are right because you know now they make a picture, a wider picture of Afghanistan, with all these films that they made and now it’s really hard to make a film about Afghanistan that has no moral in it, you know? They cannot kind of accept it anymore because they are looking for their own clichés inside a film about Afghanistan. So how is that possible, to make a film about Afghanistan where war is not there?
I think these clichés are not only around Afghanistan, but around many countries and specifically many war countries that people used to look at, the war and violence and all the political situations. This was looking from a shallow point of view and it was more like a touristic point of view. It’s like, “I’m here in Sydney for a few days and I want to make a film about Sydney, life in Sydney and how people from Sydney should think about me and my film.” In Afghanistan this happens. Many international filmmakers come to Afghanistan and their knowledge about Afghanistan is only what they read in Wikipedia or what they see in the media. It has nothing to do, absolutely, with the life of local people living there.
So I was kind of disappointed by watching these films and I wanted to share something more deeper, something more personal, something more local. I thought that, “Okay maybe it’s nice to talk about the time that I was in the village,” because at that time you know the village was disconnected to any other villages and also any other town close to it. So it was only very small community living there, like 10 houses and maybe less than 100 people living there. Of course there was no electricity, no water, no phone, no signal for phone, no internet, nothing, absolutely nothing. But you know through everyday life there and through routines you could get a very good knowledge of Afghanistan society, about the Afghanistan mentality.
I think the rural element of your work, the inaccessibility of the region compared to the cities, I think that makes your film stand out with a certain distinction – it’s portraying Afghanistan to global audiences in a way that the country isn’t often portrayed. I was reading about how you met someone from the same town in Kabul, and that you both were from the same town. I was interested in how that inspired Wolf and Sheep and whether things have changed over time in the village?
It was interesting because if you read about Afghanistan you see that Afghanistan is very unstable country in terms of political situation. Like at any moment everything can happen. There is this big potential here, but when I found this person and I talked about the village with him and he talked about the village with me, I was kind of surprised because we came from the same village, but at a different time. He was living there in ’70s and I was living there between 2001 and 2008, but our stories was very similar to each other.
It looked like we lived there at the same time and then it was really interesting for me that nothing has really changed in the rural parts of Afghanistan. You know? Afghanistan is a real rural country, even Kabul with five million people who left the big village to be crowded in a city. I was really surprised that nothing has changed here in the rural parts. Now they are changing, but it’s nothing deep. For example, education is so poor in Afghanistan. If you travel to a rural part of Afghanistan you’re gonna see a lot of buildings for schools, but they’re only buildings. There is nothing there. People graduate from high school, but they cannot even read and write their name, so they lose. The quality of education, is almost zero, like nothing. I mean this kind of change, it came after spending money in Afghanistan since 2001 but this kind of change, yes it’s there, but it’s not really changing in a deeper sense.
I wanted to talk about rural parts because I think that isn’t shown ver often. Afghanistan has rural a rural part and I think it’s important to also portray that area of Afghanistan. This small community that you see in the film, in my opinion, it can present the entirety of Afghanistan – even those with different ethnicities, different places. It doesn’t need to be central Afghanistan, but south, or north, or east; it’s always the same. It’s always the same in Kabul, just with different people, with different groups, you know, for me, it’s like the everyday life. Most of the places almost every day are the same. It’s also the same kind of violence in everyday life because people… they’ve been dealing with the war for many years now. And now war is really only a small part of our everyday life.
We don’t get shocked when he hear about 200 people getting shot, you know, getting killed in a suicide attack. Of course we get sad, as a human beings, but it’s not a shock because we are dealing with these attacks every day in the entire country; in Kabul, everywhere. You know? It’s a bit of a different point of view when you are living a war country, when everything is happening around you and you are very much involved with it. When you are outside in the rural country and looking in the distance it’s much more scary than when you are outside and looking, [thinking] “Oh my God. There is war. There are attacks. How do people live there?” But 14 million people are living there. We have like 10 million refugees all around the world, in Pakistan, and in Europe, America, live there, but for me it was more interesting to talk about the lives living here, in this part of Afghanistan, because no on really does, not even Afghans.
What was sad for me is this Western point of view on Afghanistan it also affects the local artists work. First, they are not aware of the importance of the history, and, second, they don’t want to take the risk because they think no one is interested in our stories. They think that, “Okay if there are like some really successful films about Afghanistan they’re talking about war and human rights and all these things that the world is interested in and they are really successful. We should also follow the same path because it has a bright future.” That’s why there is nothing really… We don’t really have a lot of like local art coming out from Afghanistan. That’s very sad when artists from a country don’t have their own voice and they’re able to be independent in their mind. Yeah.
What has the response been like within the country? Do you think your film comes as part of a broader shift in film in Afghanistan.
I feel I’m in a circle, the same circle. I’m actually repeating everything I was repeating before in terms of writing, in terms of financing… I don’t really see any change. In Afghanistan, first, the cinema industry is so poor, and, second, we have a small cinema community that is involved with mafia as other things. There are people there that don’t really give a space to young people, and not to women at all. I don’t want to try to get to that community because it is not born to us, you know, like women at all. There is a problem in Afghanistan that there are people from 80’s, from the Golden Time of Afghanistan, when Afghanistan was not an Islamic country and we had art, and we had music, we had cinema, we had many things. You know? In the region we were like one of the best countries, you know? They are living on that time and they don’t want to get updated or they don’t want to communicate with my generation.
You know that’s the problem. They kept the cinema community as something more personal, private for themselves. There is not really space for film makers like me. I think the only way that young filmmakers can be hopeful would be through the co-production with other countries. I do co-production with Europe because there is not really a funding system in Afghanistan and they don’t give a shit about culture and about cinema or film making. I guess it’s really important that you work as an independent artist. Film making can find your soul, and getting out of Afghanistan you the power of being independent, because you’re not dependent on anyone inside the country, so you don’t have to be part of mafia. Your voice, your work can be the way you want, rather than way that people that they support you want. I think it’s very important to have these outside sources in terms of financing, in terms of, you know, co-production. Even cinema, because like I’m making film. I’m an affluent film maker. I make film, but I don’t have the opportunity to screen my film in Afghanistan. It’s one year that I made this film. This film is finished, but I still don’t have my Afghanistan premier. There is not a cinema theatre out there. How I supposed to make my audience without cinema theatre?
If there is not support from the other countries, you know, local artists like me, in the countries like Afghanistan, we’re just gonna die, because no fool would make film. There is no money in it. There is no nothing in it. You have to invest all of your life, all of your time, like everything and cinema has no reputation there. It’s a suicide. This is, I think, one of the first like very independent kind of films that didn’t feel like it was being forced to appeal to any particular audience because it had to. It seemed like it was a work that was very much doing what it wanted to do as a work, which I think is like a huge step, I guess, for cinema in that age of science. Yeah.
Your film is the first feature work directed by a female director with co-production outside of Afghanistan. Do you think that will at all pave the way for more filmmakers coming out of Afghanistan – and is there already much of a scene?
I know a lot of film makers. Maybe not a lot, a lot, but I know some film makers that they are working on their first feature film. But they don’t know… like… they are working for so many years, as I did. I worked for eight years. I think people are working in some corners of the country. Maybe they are at the same position as I was in all these eight years, looking for something sort of a rope to grab. You know? Because it’s really difficult like, when you are living Afghanistan. You don’t speak English. How you supposed to communicate with the world outside? You know? How, if you don’t know anything about co-production, if there is no money in your country, and you have to make your short film with the help of your friends for free or from money from working at a TV station where you make trash just to survive. This is not the cinema industry. You know? This is being a victim of the cinema industry.
I know that there are film makers that are working, but they’re trying to find some way to produce their films. I think after my film was finished, I think many people were surprised because they didn’t know that I was working. I was working for years, but no one knew that. No one knew that I was working, and I think now they hope… or, I don’t know really, but I can imagine. At first, you know, it was like when this film was finished, maybe they might think that, “Okay there are a way that we can connect to the other countries outside of Afghanistan, in terms of financing the film or finding a producer.” I know that Locarno Film Festival they have a programme, Open Doors.
Yes. Yours was premiered at Locarno?
Yes. I was juried there.
I think that’s where I first saw Wolf and Sheep.
You watched it in Locarno?
They have a programme, Open Doors, and for three years they have focused on Afghanistan, which I think it’s a gift for Afghan film makers as they can apply with their project there and they can find … they can look for producer or whatever they’re looking for. You know? I think it’s good, it’s a good space, it’s a good place to start.
So is Open Doors, I remember the programme, was it just focused just on Afghanistan or broader?
On the South Asian, but this year is dedicated to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.
This coming year?
I think now there are like three projects from Afghanistan.
So these three projects, they’re working on their first picture, but maybe next two years we have three more films from Afghanistan, which I think is a very good. If you compare it like with the sets of Afghanistan, the movie then they have zero protection of feature film. I think two films, it’s a achievement.
That sounds like a really big move for the film industry in Afghanistan. I hope it has an impact. Thank you so much for the interview today.