Bahman Ghobadi tells a breathtaking story of Kurdish children on the war-torn border of Iran
My friend David Meyer, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and the author of the film-noir study A Girl
and a Gun, sent me an e-mail the other day that began:
two moments, the most moving film I've seen in months. A friend asked
me recently when the last time was I stopped thinking as I watched a film.
I could not remember, but this short-circuited the front brain and affected
me profoundly. Like Dreiser, but also much like Dickens or The 400
Blows. And like the Iranian films I know, it featured astonishing use of
lives of the participants that borders on the saintly ... it's still running through my head."
I quote that message not only to provide an opinion of Bahman Ghobadi's film other than that of
yours truly, a notoriously biased Iranophile, but also because I think David's words offer a
particularly concise yet eloquent summation of a reaction I've now heard many, many times to A
Time for Drunken Horses, an Iranian production which dramatizes the lives of Kurdish children
who inhabit a perilous region of smugglers along the Iran-Iraq border.
If you've been tuned into this column in recent months, the film may seem like a running theme
by now. In September, I reported on its U.S. debut at the Telluride Film Festival, where it drew
rapturous praise from filmmakers including Werner Herzog and proved so much the hands-
down audience favorite that extra showings had to be scheduled. Later that month in Tehran I
saw it awarded the critics' prize for best picture at Iran's equivalent of the Oscars. (This was
followed by a further coup: A couple of weeks ago A Time for Drunken Horses was named Iran's
submission to next spring's U.S. Oscars, a particular honor in a year when a number of strong
Iranian films have captured awards at film festivals all over the world.)
For filmgoers who've heard of the current surge in Iranian cinema but have yet to experience it, A
Time for Drunken Horses is easily one of the best places to start. That's not because it outdoes
the intricate and extraordinarily sophisticated cinematic visions found in the movies of Mohsen
Makhmalbaf (Gabbeh) or Abbas Kiarostami (whose The Wind Will Carry Us has yet to reach the
Triangle). Rather, it's because Ghobadi's film gives us Iranian cinema at its most pure and
elemental, with virtues that are as invigorating as spring water.
Ghobadi is a 30-year-old Kurd who grew up near the border his film
depicts during the Iran-Iraq war, a horrific, eight-year struggle that
left a million dead and regions of both countries littered with bombs
and land mines. Such is the landscape into which A Time for
Drunken Horses plunges us. People in the impoverished area earn
money by smuggling goods across the craggy mountains into the
opposite country (an endeavor partly stimulated by the international
sanctions against Iraq, of course). The perils they face are many:
border patrols, bandits, the deadly mines that are sometimes just
feet away from the main trail, and the winter snows. It's from the latter that the film gets its title:
Smugglers dose the drinking water of their mules with liquor to numb them to the cold.
Ghobadi's tale focuses on siblings who are obliged to fend for themselves since their mother is
dead and their father has disappeared on smuggling operations. Ayoub (Ayoub Ahmadi) and
his sister Ameneh (Ameneh Ekhtiar-Dini) are able-bodied teens who take care of their brother
Madi (Mehdi Ekhtiar-Dini), who's afflicted with dwarfism and other ailments that require constant
pills and injections.
The film has a great opening. As Ameneh provides a simple, understated narration, we see the
kids in the teeming bazaar of a town near their village. They are wrapping drinking glasses in
paper to prevent breakage when they're hauled across the border: the kind of simple job kids
can do to pick up some money. The place is chaotic, and every so often the chaos explodes
when some man on a truck offers day work to the boys who are milling about. The jobs are so
intensely sought that sometimes the clamor to get them provokes fistfights.
The way Ghobadi films this milieu establishes his artistic signature right away. We are tossed
into the midst of all the tussling and hustling with very little to orient us either to the place or to
the people we're meant to be following. Ghobadi often shoots from low angles, a kid's
perspective, which increases our sense of grasping for visual landmarks. There's a
documentary feel to the images, yet no documentary has quite the intense-yet-understated
eloquence that shapes this dizzying, beautifully photographed sequence, which ends with the
kids climbing aboard a truck that will take them out of the city, into the mountains.
The crucial dilemma that animates the story involves Madi. With his large, liquid eyes, he is a
speechless teenager trapped in a child's shrunken, wasting body, and his siblings are given to
understand that his prospects are bleaker still. Without the operation he needs, he will last only
a few weeks. With the operation, he still will live only a matter of months.
For Ayoub and Ameneh, there is no decision: Madi must have the operation. But how to get the
money when they have none? One possible solution that comes later in the story involves
Ameneh marrying into an Iraqi family. A more immediate and enduring prospect, though, is for
Ayoub to join the contraband-laden human and mule caravans that trek across the wintry
mountains, into Iraq.
Immediately identifiable by the oversized cap-with-earflaps he always wears, Ayoub has a face
that's a great mix of aggressive determination and youthful sensitivity. (One of Drunken Horses'
marvels--which it shares with other Iranian films--is the extraordinary freshness of the
performances Ghobadi gets from a nonprofessional cast recruited in the film's actual
locations.) The boy here is being pushed into manhood, and Ghobadi captures the moment
with great feeling and faultless understatement. Ayoub neither complains nor boasts. He does
what he has to do, learning about the smuggling life's many hazards as he goes.
One minor but telling aspect of the film is the way it portrays adults. None has a large part in the
story, yet they form a fascinatingly variegated backdrop, from the helpful doctor to a bemused
teacher to the much harder types Ayoub encounters along the trail. These characters feel so
right, so authentic and believably shaded that it makes you realize that the characters we're
accustomed to seeing on screens are invariably movie-tailored fabrications. There's no Ben
Affleck or Will Smith or their like here. Ghobadi told me that some of the film's smugglers are the
real thing, playing bit parts as a lark.
Granted, many previous Iranian films have used kid-centered stories and nonprofessional
actors to equally stunning effect; the way Drunken Horses portrays its youngsters has a slight
sheen of idealization, and there's more than a hint of old-fashioned melodrama to its premise.
Even so, Ghobadi's film emerges as one of the year's best due to a striking combination of
artistic assurance, moral vision and sheer conviction that belongs to it alone.
I first met Bahman Ghobadi three years ago at a party in Tehran to which Mohsen Makhmalbaf
took me. He was a shy, bearded, extremely polite young Kurd, apparently not long down from
the mountains, yet Makhmalbaf and others assured me he was one of Iran's most promising
young filmmakers. This says a lot: Ghobadi subsequently worked as Kiarostami's assistant on
The Wind Will Carry Us, which was shot in Kurdistan, and Kiarostami liked him so much that he
offered him a script he'd written. The last time the master scripted a film that was directed by
one of his assistants, the result was The White Balloon, which became the most successful
Iranian film ever released. But Ghobadi politely declined the offer because, he said, he had a
story to tell--his own people's story.
The Kurds, an ancient ethnic group, number 20 million and spread across an area that covers
parts of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. They are mainly Sunni Muslims, as opposed to Iran's Shiite
majority. Though recent history has been cruel to them, it seems there is little prospect of an
independent Kurdistan. Their main hopes depend on the tolerance of their host countries and
the understanding of the outside world, regarding which A Time for Drunken Horses has a lot to
say about the superiority of art--remember art?--to any number of TV news clips or even good
In Telluride, I watched Ghobadi speak to group of high school kids, including Navajos, who had
just seen his film. He told about how his whole family had worked on the production (his
mother's tasks included praying for the right weather), about how they hauled the cameras up
the mountains by mule, and how he used the prize money he got at Cannes to build a school for
One of these American kids suddenly said, "Mr. Ghobadi, you are such a wonderful person, I
think I am going to cry." At that point, pretty much everyone in the room was misty-eyed, and I
thought of the word my friend David later used: saintly. When was the last time you heard that
term applied to a young American filmmaker?
* Godfrey Cheshire is a famous film critic and writes for various film magazines.
of Kurds in ‘A taste of
cherry’ and ‘The wind
will carry us’
Kurdish Identity and
Culture in the Films of
Yol: A monument to
An interview with the
director Lauand Omar
David & Layla:
Criticism of cultural
biases and celebration
Interview with Yilmaz
David & Layla
Pain of Giving Birth
Crossing the Border
The New Kurdish
Yol - Jalal Jonroy
Breaking the Silence