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A Time for Drunken Horses
Film Review

By Deborah Young
May 22, 2000 - May 28, 2000

An MK2 Diffusion release of a B.H. Films production. (International sales: MK2 Diffusion, Paris.)

Produced, directed, written by Bahman Ghobadi. Camera (color), Saed Nikzat; editor, Samad Tavazoi; music, Hossein Alizadeh; sound, Morteza Dehnavi, Mehdi Darabi; assistant director, Ali Reza Aminii. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight), May 14, 2000. Running time: 80 MIN.

With: Nezhad Ekhtiar-Dini, Amaneh Ekhtiar-Dini, Madi Ekhtiar-Dini, Ayoub Ahmadi, Jouvin Younessi.

The second film at Cannes set in Iranian Kurdistan (along with Samira Makhmalbaf's competition entry "Blackboards"), Bahman Ghobadi's feature debut, "A Time for Drunken Horses," chooses a more classic documentary-like approach to describe the courage and hardships of a family of Kurdish orphans forced to support themselves. Ghobadi, who grew up in the village shown in the film and who played one of the two wandering teachers in "Blackboards," skips Makhmalbaf's metaphors in favor of straightforward storytelling, which, thanks to the emotional appeal of pic's child actors, is powerfully effective. This will be the film's strongest selling point in a difficult search for arthouse niches before it reaches quality TV auds.

Previously a practically taboo topic, Kurdish life has been treated in several other recent festival films, including Abbas Kiarostami's "The Wind Will Carry Us" (on which Ghobadi worked as first a.d.) and, from Turkey, Yesim Ustaoglu's "Journey to the Sun." While all show great sympathy toward the Kurdish people, "Horses" gives an insider's account, and it is all the more heart-wrenching for being realistic. Its portrait of child labor brooks no sentimentality and no cliches.

Given the conditions of absolute poverty in which they live, the children's work is necessary for survival. Every day, little kids from the mountain village are packed into trucks and driven to the city where they work at odd jobs --- wrapping parcels for shoppers or, more sinisterly, carrying heavy boxes on their backs like mules. On their way home, the driver gets them to smuggle small items in their clothing --- training for adult work, as it turns out.

Ayoub and Amaneh's severely handicapped brother, Madi, is very ill. With both parents dead, Ayoub, who might be all of 12, has become the head of a household of six children. To pay for an operation Madi desperately needs (though the doctor says it will help him survive only a few months), Ayoub joins the adults smuggling truck tires across the border to Iraq.

Braving mine fields, border guards and ambushes, they lead overburdened mules through the freezing, snow-covered mountains. To keep the long-suffering animals going, they spike their water with alcohol: The pack horses are literally drunk as they stumble through the snow. They are as uncomplaining as the children carrying burdens far too heavy for their frail shoulders.

Lightening this grim picture is Ghobadi's emphasis on the deep love that binds the brothers and sisters. Their attachment to the unfortunate Madi, 15 years old but no bigger than a toddler, is particularly touching. The sacrifices they make on his behalf include the eldest sister agreeing to marry a man from Iraqi Kurdistan, on the understanding that his family will pay for the boy's operation.

But when the bridal party meets her in-laws at the border, latter refuse to take Madi home with them and instead return him to Ayoub with a mule as reparation. Ayoub's struggle to sell the animal in Iraq provides the film's suspenseful conclusion.

Most of the young non-pro cast belong to a local family, and all are graced with glowing eyes and a totally natural screen presence.

Saed Nikzat's lensing, which makes extensive use of a rough-and-ready handheld camera, stays extremely close to the characters as though it were one of them. Adding to the atmosphere of the rugged, remote mountains is some haunting local music by Hossein Alizadeh, used discreetly.


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