Not to be confused with its namesake, Juan Antonio Bayona's breakthrough film of 2007, the week's big MUBI premiere The Orphanage is instead the third full-length feature by the Afghan writer-director Shahrbanoo Sadat, whose Wolf and Sheep caught eyes on the festival and arthouse circuit in 2016. Her latest, set in the Kabul of 1989, introduces us to Qodrat (Quodratollah Qadiri), a redheaded, freckle-faced teen in a never-washed Amitabh Bachchan T-shirt who makes a living - in as much as anyone who lives out of an abandoned, bashed-up car can be said to make a living - hiking up the prices to new Bollywood releases as a ticket scalper. (Sadat inserts some fun clips from 1982's megahit Namak Halaal, featuring Bachchan kicking spectacular butt and a close-to-classic Asha Bhosle song.) Soon after this introduction, however, our boy will be carted off to the institution of the title, which presents as equal parts safety net and melting pot, a place of Sikh classmates, Argentinian football shirts, and - because of the country's historical and political legacy - compulsory Russian lessons. Qodrat emerges as a mixed-up kinda kid, one whose idle fantasies express as Bollywood song sequences, and a possible stand-in for a country that hadn't figured itself out yet, that - due to its unique position on the map, and the influences exerted over it by forces East and West - may to this day be considered a work in progress.
Aptly, The Orphanage itself feels open to suggestion. Much of it has been shot in the established arthouse-naturalism style, quietly tailing Qodrat and his fellow orphans as they go about their daily routine or sit around chatting shit: the performances appear at least semi-improvised, but Sadat gently nudges them towards what struck this viewer as an accurate representation of teenage-boy chatter (chiefly football and crushes, with a localised sidebar of chess). Yet she's equally unafraid to throw in, almost out of nowhere, the odd crowdpleasing flourish, like those musical daydreams, which peak with a minipop recreation of Sholay's deathless motorcycle-and-sidecar number "Yeh Dosti Hum Nahi Todenge" (more Amitabh, this time in companionable mode). What's especially engaging about The Orphanage is its sense that Sadat, too, is still working out what kind of filmmaker she wants to be - a purveyor of heavyweight statements, light diversions or something in between. It's possible, of course, to take the latter route, and what The Orphanage resembles more than anything is one of those much-laurelled Nineties movies (like Kolya from the Czech Republic, and The Thief from the former USSR) in which youngsters stand as the widest-eyed onlookers to formative events in national histories. Qodrat and co. witness a Russian tank crashing in the rocky terrain beyond the orphanage's walls; later, they will be called upon to burn potentially damning papers before the mujahideen reach those walls.
Here, then, is the Afghan Generation X, where X represents an unknown; those who occupy positions of influence within the country today, and who have to make their decisions based on everything they've seen and experienced. As rediscovered over the course of Sadat's film, they're youngsters who've lost their parents in the endless combat, or simply been abandoned, and left to organise themselves. (We're offered glimpses of passing supervisors - one of whom is played by Anwar Hashimi, the real-life orphan on whose diaries the film is based - but mostly the focus is on what these boys to do fill their days.) That arguably justifies a certain aimlessness built into this Orphanage's structure, which may require viewer adjustment. For about 80 of these 90 minutes, Sadat is simply offering us an unhurried, detailed tour of a place as it was at a specific time, without undue sign of any pressing narrative agenda: these kids' development is about all the development we get. (For onlooking child psychologists, extrapolating possible career paths for every last one of these tykes, it may be all that's really required.) That may be a consequence of basing your film on diaries: it yields a personal, chronological summary, not necessarily a story with all its hooks, whistles and bells. And I did feel the ending was a youthful misstep, in that Sadat chooses fantasy over reality - no matter that it's a fantasy that doubtless provided Hashimi and his contemporaries with a great deal of comfort amid a highly uncertain moment. Still, the extra observational time serves to confirm exactly what Wolf and Sheep proposed: that Sadat is among the most skilled directors of child performers working anywhere in the world right now. The future - or at least this small corner of it - is bright.
The Orphanage streams on MUBI from tomorrow.