A Time for Drunken Horses
review by Dan Lybarger, 10 November 2000

A friend of mine once observed than any flick that focuses on a cute kid is a shoo-in for a Best Foreign Film Oscar. With Burnt by the Sun and Kolya as previous examples, it would seem as if Iranian writer-director Bahman Ghobadi had better start practicing acceptance speeches for A Time for Drunken Horses. With several powerful moments, itís easy to see why the Iranians submitted the film and why Ghobadi tied for the Camera díOr (the award for best new feature director) at this yearís Cannes Film Festival.

Thanks to the movieís convincingly harsh atmosphere and unique subject matter (Ghobadi may be the only Kurdish filmmaker), one can forgive Ghobadi if A Time for Drunken Horses unfolds awkwardly. Many of the transitions are abrupt and crammed together by voiceover. Much of the patchwork quality of the film can be attributed to the arduous nature of its two-year making. When some of the sequences were deemed unsatisfactory, Ghobadi had to pay for its completion himself by selling his possessions and borrowing money from friends and relatives. He also worked in inhospitable terrain with a cast composed entirely of amateurs of varying talent.

More abundant resources may have helped Ghobadi, but these circumstances also give A Time for Drunken Horses an urgency that it might not have had otherwise. Loosely drawn from Ghobadiís experiences growing up in the Kurdish sections of Iran, the movie follows a group of siblings who have had the burden of raising themselves. Their mother is dead, and their father, who makes his living smuggling goods from Iran to Iraq, is rarely home. Ayoub (Ayoub Ahmadi) tries to raise money by wrapping packages and participating in confidence schemes that sometimes donít pay. When he and other children are recruited to smuggle goods from Iraq to Iran in their clothing, they are busted before they can get paid. Ayoub and the rest of his family also have to take care of his sickly brother Madi (Mehdi Ekhtiar-Dini). The youngster cannot walk, and his illness has stunted his growth. It will also kill him if he doesnít receive expensive surgery in Iraq, and the operation may do little good.

Their situation deteriorates when their father dies. Their uncle, who has eight children of his own, can only provide limited support. Desperate to get Madi the operation, Ayoub follows in his fatherís footsteps and takes up smuggling. The journey across the mountains is so dangerous that even the pack animals are wary. In fact, to make the mules compliant enough to endure the trip, the smugglers have to pour alcohol into their drinking water. Watching two poor beasts being "fortified" is a chilly sight. In addition, the smuggling runs are prone to ambushes, and clients sometimes "forget" to pay. Ghobadiís ambush scenes are hair-raising, particularly in one scene where the mules are too drunk to move. His documentary-like approach creates the vivid depiction of the hardships that people in Kurdish villages face. He also avoids wallowing in gloom. One of the more ironic sequences involves a reading lesson, where the children hear a story involving an airplane. In a village with few modern amenities, the tale seems as remote and fantastical as a fairy tale.

With his current accolades, one imagines that Ghobadiís next films will be easier to make. Still, one hopes that he doesnít lose sight of his roots. In his unblinking depiction of the world he grew up in, Ghobadi has found stories that are worth telling and sharing with the rest of the planet.

Written and
Directed by:

Bahman Ghobadi

Starring:
Ayoub Ahmadi
Rojin Younessi
Amaneh Ekhtiar-dini
Madi Ekhtiar-dini
Kolsolum Ekhtiar-dini
Karim Ekhtiar-dini
Rahman Salehi
Osman Karimi

FULL CREDITS

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