‘When Pomegranates Howl’ Review: A Heartfelt Portrait of Life and Death on the Streets of Kabul

Australia's Afghanistan-set Oscar submission mixes the solemn and the sentimental in its story of a young boy dreaming of stardom from the war-torn gutter.

When Pomegranates Howl
Courtesy of Tokyo Film Festival

With his father dead, 9-year-old Hewad has been prematurely thrust into the role of family breadwinner, hauling a produce-laden street cart through the center of Kabul all day for a pittance. It’s no life for a pre-teen boy, but Hewad endures it steadfastly, believing eventual movie stardom will be his reward. As played by first-timer Arafat Faiz in “When Pomegranates Howl,” you just about believe him. The non-professional actor’s quick grin and darting onscreen energy are the animating forces of Iranian-Australian filmmaker Granaz Moussavi’s conventional but effective heart-tugger, which filters the bone-weary experience of the Afghan population under wartime through Hewad’s hopeful perspective — only to undercut his optimism at key, cruel points.

This year’s Australian submission to the Oscar international feature race, “When Pomegranates Howl” recently screened at the Tokyo Film Festival, having already made some headway on the Australian fest circuit. (The Adelaide Film Festival, which secured the world premiere last year, co-funded the production.) Further festival play is assured for a straightforward drama — notwithstanding its floridly metaphorical title — that takes square aim at audiences’ emotions, though there’s a raw finish to this ultimately downbeat film that may hinder global arthouse distribution.

Indeed, “When Pomegranates Howl” would play well as a rougher, tougher complement to the recent Oscar-nominated animated feature “The Breadwinner,” another study of an Afghan childhood buffeted by very adult political and economic concerns. Their respective Kabul-set narratives, however, are separated by two decades: Though the production of Moussavi’s film precedes the Afghan War’s unhappy resolution this year, there is a mournful, elegiac tenor to its depiction of the conflict. The ongoing human cost of the situation is felt from the outset, as we’re told that Hewad’s father was recently “martyred” in crossfire, a poignant euphemism to which the film repeatedly and wrenchingly returns.

As the only male left in his household, the boy stoically assumes the duty of providing for his mother (Freshta Alimi), grandmother (Saeeda Saadat) and infant sister, believing he alone can fend off the looming threat of his mother’s forced remarriage to her brother-in-law. Hewad hustles well enough for himself in the competitive street-vendor racket, where turf wars are as harsh as the income is meagre, but he believes a screen acting career is predestined and imminent. Chancing upon a discarded pair of sunglasses in the street, he dons them with Jack Nicholson panache, as if to the manner born.

When a passing Australian photojournalist (Andrew Quilty) expresses an interest in him and his friends, Hewad takes this as his big break. Where the foreigner sees the boys as perfectly emblematic of Afghan hardship for his National Geographic-style feature, Hewad sees in his lens an invitation to celebrity. It’s a quietly heartbreaking mismatch of perception and reality that steadily builds to the very opposite of a fairytale ending, as well as a sharp undermining of the white-savior trope suggested by the very premise. The photographer, never named, is a mere bystander to the film’s most drastic dramatic pivot.

Moussavi, a published poet who previously made the well-traveled 2009 character study “My Tehran for Sale,” has drawn on real-life headlines — notably, the 2013 story of two Afghan children killed by a NATO helicopter — for her screenplay, a pared-down affair that permits plenty of room for sidewalk-level, documentary-style observation, filmed on location in Kabul itself. Street musicians perform with clattering percussion, while the bustle and banter of market activity tells us more about the everyday life of Hewad and his people than any amount of pedantic narrative exposition. Faiz, meanwhile, is a remarkable find, bringing enough distinct personality and occasional flinty resistance to Hewad’s character to make him more than just a winsome sociographic symbol.

Cinematographer Behrouz Badrouj resists over-prettifying proceedings in her wandering, inquisitive takes. A stone-and-shale palette prevails, sometimes disrupted by significant pops of garish color: the incongruously celebratory balloons that Hewad hawks in addition to his pomegranates and beans, or the snazzy Nike trainers that the photographer buys him as an act of charity that may or not be principally serving his own conscience. When Moussavi and Badrouj shift into still-photo mode, chiefly in moments of tragedy and chaos, it’s both jarring and telling — assuming the aesthetic through which most outside viewers have observed the war in Afghanistan, shorn of individual human context and feeling.

‘When Pomegranates Howl’ Review: A Heartfelt Portrait of Life and Death on the Streets of Kabul

Reviewed in Tokyo Film Festival (online), Nov. 8, 2021. Running time: 80 MIN.

  • Production: (Afghanistan-Australia) A Sterga Production, Parvin Prods. production. (World sales: Iranian Independents, Tehran.) Producers: Baheer Wardak, Granaz Moussavi, Christine Williams, Marzieh Vafamehr. Executive producer: Shaun Miller. Co-producer: Makham Ahmadi.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Granaz Moussavi. Camera: Behrouz Badrouj. Editors: Shima Monfared, Ali Akhavan, Nima Nabilirad, Elias Azizi, Ali Azizi. Music: Hossein Alizadeh.
  • With: Arafat Faiz, Elham Ahmad Ayazi, Saeeda Saadat, Freshta Alimi, Amir Shah Talash, Hashmatullah Fanayee, Andrew Quilty, Haseeba Ebrahimi. (Pashto, Farsi, English dialogue)