Tiana met up with director Shahrbanoo Sadat at the Sydney Film Festival to talk about filmmaking and her debut feature Wolf and Sheep (in competition).
Can you tell me about your background and yourself?
I was born in Iran. My family lived in Iran for many years, living there as refugees. When I was 11, the September 11 attacks happened and after the American and international community arrived in Afghanistan, the Iranian government put a lot of pressure on Afghan refugees to get back to the country. The only place my family remembered from Afghanistan, since they were so young when they left (my mother was 14 and my father was 16), was a very small and isolated village, similar to the kind of village you see in the film. It is in the central and rural part of Afghanistan, so my parents decided to move back to that village and were very overexcited because for them it was like going back home. They had the fields, the house and there were many of their relatives there. For a very long time they had not seen them and for them it was really exciting.
For me though, at 11 years old, I didn’t have that feeling. I was very angry at my father’s decision to take me there to the village because I was born in the city and was city girl. My father took me to a village with 10 houses and less than 100 people living in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t even speak the language. There was like nothing there, nothing. There was no electricity, no water, no signal for phones, no internet of course, nothing there at all. Even to get to the closest town was very tricky and I didn’t go there for the 7 years that I lived there. Suddenly we had a flock of sheep, we had cows and chickens (laughs).
So I was always dreaming about moving out to Kabul. I was dreaming about being there and going there even though I had never been there before. My father, with any conversation I had with him, it completely failed because he didn’t want to leave his home.
So when I was 18 in 2008, I moved out to Kabul and wanted to study Physics. But because I did not know that much about Kabul and since it was my first time there I didn’t speak the language – in Kabul they speak a different language and dialect to the one in the village. So I was a new arrival and went to university. I took the paper for the entry exam and when I was filling the paper I found out that it was not the national science faculty but the cinema theatre faculty instead. (laughs).
So your career kind of happened by accident?
Yes, yes. And I just filled it (the form). At that time, I did not really care about studying cinema. I was not like “yes, I love movies”, it was very far away as a topic in my life. My family was very conservative and my father was religious – during the time we lived in Iran we only had a TV. Even on this TV we could only watch the Channel 1 and the Channel 2 and it was like Iranian TV, so there was so much censorship and it was completely disconnected, like constant brainwashing. We were not even allowed to have a tape recorder because my father didn’t want one. He was the kind of person who hated any kind of art. He wanted his children to become doctors. And then I said to him, I’m done. (laughs).
So prior to this, you weren’t interested in storytelling?
No, I was not. Even when I was in the university, at that time, I just wanted to get my bachelor to get a job. I didn’t want to refuse studying cinema theatre because I had to wait one more year to study physics and then I didn’t want my father to come to Kabul and then take me back to the village. I just wanted to tell him I have an excuse, some excuse that meant I could have a job or something to study. So I just went blindly into studying cinema theatre.
I then got a job. My first job was in a very popular TV channel in Kabul and then a year after, I went to a cinema documentary French workshop and they were spreading cinema verite style. This was for three months and they taught us the basics of cinema and showed us documentaries in Yugoslavia and from many different countries. I fell in love with this. I was 19, it was 2009, and it was the first time in my life that I watched films and I watched real films.
Like I said, in the village there was no electricity and in Iran, we only had that TV I told you about and I never went to the cinema. The first time I ever went to a cinema, I was 20 and was working in Cinema Tech. That was the first time I watched a film in a real cinema theatre.
While I was studying as part of the workshop, I saw documentaries and saw that they weren’t commercial films. I fell in love with this observation and point of view, this attachment to the reality and truth and not judging the people on screen.
That is definitely reflected in Wolf and Sheep.
Yes for sure. And for some reason, very unconsciously, I ended up preferring fiction films though I still liked documentary. So after graduation, I started to make my short film. I made like three, I don’t know… a few short films and they were kind of like the same style.
After that, I began to work on something that was based on the years that I was living in the village. So yeah, that’s my background (laughs).
You talk about how you started watching films when you were 19, what film made a significant impact on you?
You know there was not one film that made a significant impact necessarily. But it was the language of cinema, specifically the language of cinema verite that I felt very much connected to because when I lived in the village I couldn’t speak the language and failed to make friends. I was the weird girl coming from town and I couldn’t communicate with the girls the same age as me. I always had this feeling of being an outsider and I was never inside but rather outside watching others. So this observational element of cinema was talking to me directly and I loved it.
Before I studied in this workshop I was always embarrassed about my past, wanting to hide where I came from because I thought people would look at me, like, why did your father choose to live in the village. But the village life was not that difficult when you are born there and live there. However if you see other lives and you come to some weird world where you are disconnected from everything, that is a nightmare. And that happened to me and I was not happy about it. So when I moved to Kabul, I didn’t want to tell anyone where I came from.
But when I studied in this workshop, it was more like connecting me to myself because I had this opportunity to look back at my life. In the workshop they were talking about stories and I was thinking about how I don’t know all these people’s stories but I know my story. So why should I be embarrassed of my story. I should tell, I should talk about it. And I think it is very important.
At that time, I started to watch films on the topic of Afghanistan. I felt I was disconnected to these films because they were always talking about “important” things – war, human rights, and women’s rights. They were not cinema to me, they were like titles in the newspapers, just facts about war. I got very disappointed especially after I saw some films made by Iranians about Afghanistan. Iran shares the same culture and the same kind of language. As such, it was incredibly disappointing to see a neighbour country so close and their poor portrayal of us. In that moment, I decided to leave university.
I didn’t know necessarily how to make a good film but I knew what kind of film I didn’t want to make. I didn’t want to make another film in this category- ones that talk about being victims or being heroes. I thought it was cliché and as a local and a viewer it was like a slap on your face to see something that filmmakers are insisting so much on but that wasn’t the way I saw Afghanistan and what I knew. There were so many details, like they care about drama, about the story and the script but unless you are from the culture, you do not really know. Even for me, it took many years to adapt to the culture – to get this connection to Afghanistan. Now it’s 16 years of living in Afghanistan and I’m still living in Kabul and now I feel that, yes, I am interested in this culture and I am learning more of the language every day. It doesn’t make sense that filmmakers from elsewhere coming to make films about Afghanistan, ones about soldiers and of war. My problem is that in Afghanistan, we don’t have a cinema industry, we don’t have our own voice. We don’t have our own local artists that are sharing the real story and culture.
So I started, I didn’t know how to tell the story or know anything about storytelling but I knew I wanted to share my own experience. I started the project after my graduation. In the meantime, I was finishing and making short films and finished this film last year. So it took almost 7 or 8 years.
When making the film, what kind of input did you get from your family, your friends and the community?
I got a lot. I had a script of 120 pages and most of the stories come from my observation of life at the time and all the memories I had.
When I moved to Kabul in 2008, I got a job in TV, like I told you. There I met a man who lived at the same village as I but in the 70s!
It was very funny because when we talked about our lives in the village, it seemed like we lived there at the same time but we didn’t. If you look at the history of Afghanistan, politically, it is like Afghanistan is constantly changing every moment but the life in the rural villages, never changes. I mean now they are changing but at one time it seemed like they never changed. Everything, people, gossip, everything was the same. So I like because Wolf and Sheep it is kind of like my autobiographical life but also his authobiographical life. I tried to mix these two experiences together to make this fictional time that we both knew because I was an outsider and he was the complete opposite of me. He was born in the village and lived there till he was 18 and then his step sister took him away to Kabul. I was in the opposite situation as I mentioned.
He shared with me his diary of 800 pages and I was very, very much interested in his story. I think that was the start to when I got interested in Afghanistan. Through his personal story, you read the history of Afghanistan and for me, as a person who never found that connection till that time, it made me realize that I was at the right place and that I knew what I was going. I then came up with my 5 feature films out of his diary. Wolf and Sheep is the first one and The Orphanage is the second one, with 3 more coming.
Can you tell me more about the others coming up?
Yes, yes. Well first, there are so many similarities between my life and his life and I’m always trying to make these films as close to the truth. In the second part, it is the story of the boy in Wolf and Sheep (Quodrat) who has moved with his stepsister to another town. It his story in the town in the 80s.
I read that the process of filming was incredibly difficult, especially since you could not actually film in Afghanistan. What aspects of your film did you have to compromise as a result?
Well I think I was very flexible and even my team was incredibly flexible. We were working with non-actors, with kids, with animals. In this cinema it doesn’t make sense, you know, you look at your watch and are constantly thinking “oh my god, oh my god, we should shoot”. You know, like everyone was attempting to adapt themselves to the situation and I didn’t use a script on the set.
My actors did not read or write mostly, not even in their own language and I wrote the script in English so there was not really a use. And you know it was not a kind of story that my actors should actually read through lines. Instead, 5 minutes before each scene I explained to them the situation in the scene very briefly and they were very free to express how they are in their own real life. So in this film, you don’t, you shouldn’t be professional in the structured way.
So to maintain that authenticity as well?
Afghan audiences won’t necessarily see the film because of the logistics of the film industry there and the lack of cinemas and as such access. Because of that, do you think that influenced some of your choices since most of the audiences would be Western audiences?
No, no, no. I think this is a very interesting question, no one asked it and I am happy you asked it because this was a constant discussion all the time between me and my producer Katja. She is a great woman and I was very happy to find her because she has the same taste of cinema as me, same point of view and she was the perfect person for this project because she let me be free in the way to make the film.
We were always talking about this since our audience they are mostly international and I don’t really have the chance of showing this film in Afghanistan, so maybe I should explain some things or maybe I should make my language softer. But I didn’t do that. That was a little bit challenging even in terms of scriptwriting because I wrote things and people found it a little bit complicated and they needed more description and more background.
Even though I don’t have the Afghan audience except for the few Afghans that are in Europe or here that come to the cinema, for me it was really important to make something that, because of my experience of watching those bad films about Afghanistan, when a local person sees it he says “Yes that’s my life.” Since I never had this film, that was the whole meaning for me to make this film – making something that locals can see as a mirror to their lives.
You said that you worked with children and filmed their natural flow of their conversation on set without a script. How was that?
You know I think that was the easiest part of the entire 7 to 8 years of working on this project. We shot the film in 4 weeks and you know it was because we were working with non-actor children, we decided to shoot the film in a sequence plan. So when we pressed record, it was like 1 hour after that we stopped recording. My camerawoman she was just amazing, her name is Janine and she carried the very camera on her shoulder- we didn’t use tripods, it was a hand camera, and in the mountains.
So we treated it like a documentary and we shot it like a documentary. They were not actors and I know many directors work with actors but I cannot. For me it’s like a real feeling and I can never tell to the children “okay we are doing it again”. There was not an “again” in filming. You do it now or it’s gone and you need to move to the next scene.
So Janine, my DOP, and I, we talked about it and since it was the same way that I shot my short film we decided to do it this way. So for filming with the children, I explained the scenes very, very briefly, like “This scene you are going to bake potatoes” and they understood since these situations were so familiar to them.
It was really joyful. What I found really nice was when I was working with the children, with all the people, I always had this feeling that I’m doing something enjoyable and I was forgetting that I was making a movie. I think that was the best part.
SHAHRBANOO SADAT is a young Afghan scriptwriter and director. She is based in Kabul. Her first short fiction Vice Versa One was selected at Directors’ Fortnight in 2011. In 2013, she launched her production company Wolf Pictures in Kabul. Wolf and Sheep was developed with the Cannes Cinéfondation Residency in 2010. Sadat was 20 years old at the time – the youngest ever selected.