Cannes 2016 – Wolf and Sheep (Shahrbanoo Sadat)

Despite the absence of anything resembling a conventional narrative, the Afghan Quinzaine entry Wolf and Sheep still has qualities that make it a worthwhile endeavour to check out: there’s the refreshing absence of soldiers in a film set in Afghanistan; it’s a film directed by a young Afghan woman; and it offers an interesting glimpse of life in the Pamirs. Plus, how often do you see a movie featuring a green, stark naked wolf-fairy? That said, even the relatively short running time of 85 minutes cannot prevent the film from becoming tedious due to a lack of any true narrative drive.

Young Sediqa, eleven years old, is a bit of an outsider in her rural village. A shepherd like all other children, she is the subject of gossip by the other girls, some of whom swear she is cursed. The children’s roles are clear: the girls tend flocks of sheep, while the boys keep an eye (and their slings) out for roaming wolves. Boys and girls don’t mix, but Sediqa strikes up a friendship with Qodrat, a boy of the same age who roams the mountains alone, and whose mother has just remarried an older villager, a cause for yet more gossip. The girls plot at getting married, the boys practice with their slings, the women gossip, and the men tell each other mythical stories to explain everyday events. You have to do something to kill time in the remote Afghan mountains. One of these tales features a wolf who walks on its hind legs, but is actually a green fairy in wolf’s hide, who visits the villages at night to kidnap rich and evil people.

Said wolf-fairy is shown several times in the film, in both possible likenesses, of which the fairy version certainly offers a striking, unsettling image. Just why this apparition is shown is not quite clear, given the absence of any villager in such scenes, save for one scene late in the film. An attempt perhaps to lend the film a mystique it does not really need to keep things interesting, these scenes only confuse the viewer when they are mixed with sequences that have an almost documentary-like quality. All actors are local amateurs who basically play themselves, and whose actions in the film probably are not far off their daily lives. Director Shahrbanoo Sadat, at 26 one of the youngest directors in the festival, spent seven years of her childhood in rural central Afghanistan, making the film partly autobiographical and lending it an authenticity that would be hard to achieve if it were filmed by an outsider.

This also results in a treatment of both animals and children on screen that could be seen as cruel to Western eyes. The children in particular get beatings for just about anything they do wrong, and while not all are shown on screen, one can see why Sadat looks back at her youth in the mountains as a hard time. Yet she is still proud of it, since it has given her good insights into Afghan society. As long as this leads to films that give Westerners more insight into a country that mostly draws Western attention for terrorists and Taliban, we are all for it.