SFF review: Wolf and Sheep

A striking look at a life less well known in the mountains of Afghanistan that nonetheless resembles a universal childhood. Marvellous and magical.

Mention Afghanistan and many will leap immediately to thoughts of war, terrorism and the Taliban, but, for the most part, Shahrbanoo Sadat’s stunning debut Wolf and Sheep plays out a world away from the turmoil we are so used to seeing on screen.

A truly remarkable highlight of this year’s Sydney Film Festival, following its debut in the Cannes Film Festival’s directors fortnight, at first it would appear as if documentary realism. Depicting the everyday joys and travails of a village where kids whirl their slingshots at goats while neglecting the sheep they should be protecting from predators as their parents barter over meat and marriage in the background, using dried up dung as fire starters, there’s a mesmerising appeal to the almost cinéma vérité style captured by cinematographer Virginie Surdej, with Tajikistan standing in as the towering location, all babbling streams and steep grassy inclines.

Co-written with Aarzoo Burhani, Katja Adomeit and Daniel Borgman, it is informed by a life very familiar to Sadat’s, though not hers exactly. An incredible story, Iranian-born, her family, as with all refugees from Afghanistan, were never granted citizenship and, following the global upheaval of 9/11, found themselves deported when she was a teenager.

Seeking some form of stability, her parents and other relatives returned to the mountainously remote village in the country’s parched heart where they grew up, and Sadat’s life was transformed, leaving the city behind. It upended once more when she set out for university in Kabul and there fell into filmmaking.

The charismatic mischief of Wolf and Sheep’s young cast, on whom it mostly focuses and drawn from the ranks of her relatives, shows that even in a cloistered world far from invading Americans, there’s a universality to territorial hijinks, far-fetched gossip and potty mouthed rivalries. There’s magic too in the gamble of the goats determined not to move while feeling off colour.

If the quiet drama of this very hands-on life were all that was on show, Wolf and Sheep would still be a fascinating insight into a very different view of life in Afghanistan, but Sadat also injects, in startling fashion, a thunderbolt of mythical fiction.

A tall tale about a vengeant wolf creature standing tall on two legs that hunts those of mean spirit and an alluring green fairy found within its skin are ethereally inserted into night-time visions swirling at the everyday edges of this mundane masterpiece. Another tale of a breastfed snake that steals eyesight is not brought to life, but haunts the narrative nonetheless.

This magical realism is held, like a genie in a bottle, separate from the characters and their daily toil, though the arrival, stage left, of real world fears hangs heavy over its finale. Whatever their future may bring, Sadat is clearly a promising talent just setting out on what will hopefully be an auspicious career. With her debut, she has already left an indelible mark.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords