By Jack Dignan
Originally Published on Salty Popcorn
WOLF AND SHEEP’s genre defies a label. It’s a blend between fiction and reality, vanquishing the distinctions of the two and creating something fresh and new. This isn’t a documentary. But it isn’t really a scripted feature, either. It’s a daring, obscure and unseen depiction of rural life outside a remote shepherd community in Afghanistan. Actors play themselves. There’s no real script to base anything on. And the experience is profound.
First time director Shahrbanoo Sadat, who took home the top prize at the 2016 Cannes Director’s Fortnight for WOLF AND SHEEP, takes us on a journey into an area of Afghanistan we see very little of. It’s a small, rural village with clear positions of power and very few citizens. The boys and girls, by their own accord, are separated. They’re each of their own, parental-less world. These young children serve as our eyes and ears into the village. We follow their story as they live their daily lives, get into trouble, mimic behaviours of their superiors (for both better and worse), and gossip about the townspeople. It’s a story without story, and becomes a wholly unique moviegoing experience.
There’s a sense of wonder and investment sown into these children’s lives. They’re young and naïve. None of them have a proper grasp of the world, as most children don’t, but they’ve been forced to mature and face the consequences of their actions. Life is full hardship, but not without time spent throwing rocks or creating a sort of balloon within their pants while swimming. Little seems to be going on. They’re forced to pave their own way, and consequently their own excitement, even if this is at great cost to them.
WOLF AND SHEEP is a film that goes beyond your typical narrative structure. Not having scripted characters or events makes for a non-linear way of storytelling, something I feel I’ve said about three times too many throughout the film festival, but it’s something that rings true once again. It’s a film without a start, middle or end. Events happen, situations rise and one kid gets his eye plucked out (it’s not pretty), but everything occurs without flow. This lack of structure makes for a surreal, naturalistic viewpoint, however at the cost of occasional tediousness. As I was watching this film very early in the morning and a good way through the festival, I found my eyes slowly closing during the quiet moments.
It does remain a very straightforward story, however, and having these children just go ahead and be children makes the viewing unpredictable, shocking and occasionally full of laughs. These are kids being kids. They’ll always find a way into mischievous, puzzling situations and superstitions. One scene finds them all secretly smoking, while another has them bitching about one of their friends behind her back. A secret, rebellious friendship between one of the boys and one of the girls works as a key plot point, and the scenes they shared were some of my favourites.
The title of “WOLF AND SHEEP” does come into play throughout, whether it’s through symbolism, a strange fantasy sequence or the unexpected, rather literal finale. It takes on several meanings, both in the actual world and metaphorically speaking, and I liked that about it. The kids, at one point, discuss a wolf-like creature who, when shedding away their fur pelt, reveals themselves to be a beautiful green fairy. It blends fantasy into the real-world situation, but it does feel incredibly jarring. We go from kids hanging around in the woods to a green spray-painted nudist, and it’s something I wasn’t remotely ready to see.
At its core, though, it’s the craftsmanship and cinematography that pulls us through. I went in thinking this was a documentary, and came out unsure if that was the case. As I later found out, it wasn’t (maybe the naked green lady should’ve given that away), but it could’ve fooled me. The camera always finds itself right in the heat of the action, able to document the utmost gorgeous imagery. It simultaneously feels like something conveniently planted down in the right spot and something spent months planning and storyboarding, adding to the naturalistic elements of the film.
Even at just a mere 86-minute runtime, WOLF AND SHEEP is able to cram in as much beauty, symbolism and cultural importance as it can. It’s a wonderful tale of a small little village that, while narratively flawed, makes for a fascinating film. Storytelling is key at the village, and this is a story I imagine they’re all very proud of.
3 1/2 Stars
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