Winner of the Directors’ Fortnight’s top award, the art cinema prize, the slim, slice-of-life drama “Wolf and Sheep” mixes naturalistic, ethnographic images with an appealing thread of folkloric magical realism. The action is set in an Afghan village that 26-year-old tyro director-writer Shahrbanoo Sadat, Afghanistan’s first-ever female feature helmer, was forced to re-create in the dusty mountains of neighboring Tajikistan due to security concerns for her mostly foreign crew — and the presence in the tale of a naked, green, female fairy. Sadat also imported 38 Hazaragi-speaking villagers, adults and children, who play versions of themselves. Although more compelling on a visual level than a narrative one, the movie represents an enticing festival and niche event item, as well as a vision of Sadat’s homeland that is far different from what the media normally depicts.
Inspired by the remote, rural outpost in central Afghanistan where the filmmaker spent her teenage years feeling like an outsider, the film immediately establishes the dynamic of a place out of time, a spot where not much happens and where everyone knows everyone else’s business and discusses it ad infinitum. It is also a village where the sexes remain very much segregated. The women cook, clean and dry dung patties at home while affairs such as funerals, animal husbandry (and sacrifices) and deciding justice are managed outdoors, man to man.
The local children, who herd flocks of goats and sheep up and down the mountain each day, also cleave into same-sex groups. As the animals graze, their bells tinkling in the distance, a group of girls talks about marriage and pretends to smoke cigarettes, while the roughhousing boys practice with their slingshots and exchange surprisingly vulgar insults. Even among such a tiny population there are cliques: The other girls shun Sediqa (Sediqa Rasuli), a melancholy-looking youngster, chattering that Sediqa’s grandmother became blind after nursing a snake.
Young Qodrat (Qodratollah Qadiri), whose father’s funeral takes place in the film’s opening moments, also is the subject of gossip when his mother becomes the third wife of a local man who doesn’t want to keep her kids. One day while Qodrat is brooding, he runs into Sediqa and instructs her on the fine art of slingshot braiding. Sharing a bond as outsiders, the two youngsters explore the mountainside together a few times, but their friendship isn’t fated to continue.
Since the pace of village life is slow and repetitive, it’s difficult to discern how much time passes, but certain incidents stand out. At one point, a slingshot novice accidentally (but bloodily) puts out another boy’s eye, and the injured youth’s father demands justice in the form of a bull. At another point, an unseen wolf attacks and kills some of the livestock, and the angry flock owners beat the little shepherds.
In contrast with her representation of mundane daily life, Sadat inserts some striking moments of magical realism, illustrating the folklore that lives large in the local imagination. At several points, the men and boys repeat the tale of the Kashmiri wolf, a creature that walks on two feet. A green fairy lives underneath the animal’s furry pelt. She was once captured by a felonious miller and forced to become his wife, but she managed to escape. Sadat depicts both fairy and wolf as eerie presences, stalking the landscape by night. Near the film’s conclusion, the rumor of armed men heading toward the village represents a more metaphorical wolfish rapacity.
Made on a modest budget (that includes 413 crowd-sourced contributions), the film is pleasing to the eye, with the non-professional actors wearing their own colorful clothing. There’s no production designer credit; per Danish producer Katja Adomeit, director Sadat designed the mud-and-stone dwellings herself, which workers then built in Tajikistan. Strong sound design also contributes to the you-are-there ambience.