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Filming in Iran's Rugged Corner, Hoping Prayer Works

By Elaine Sciolino
The New York Times
October 27, 2000

When Bahman Ghobadi decided to make his first feature film and set it in his native Kurdistan in the northwest corner of Iran, he turned to his family for help. One brother became the production manager. Another became an assistant director. An older sister found suitable locations and mediated disputes on the set. Most important was Mr. Ghobadi's mother, who cooked hot meals for the cast and crew every day and visited her local mosque in times of crisis.

"My mother had a crucial role ó praying," said Mr. Ghobadi in an interview during a recent trip to New York, his first ever. "Every morning she would call and ask, `What do you need?' I'd tell her, `I need a cloudy sky tomorrow' or `I need snow right now.' She would go immediately to the mosque. She did everything she could to bring God to my set."

Mr. Ghobadi, an Iranian Kurd, is only 31. But his first feature film, "A Time for Drunken Horses," won the Camera d'Or award at the Cannes International Film Festival this year and has been richly praised at film festivals from Telluride to Toronto. It opens tomorrow in 16 cities nationally as part of the Shooting Gallery Film Series, including New York at the Loews State, Broadway at 45th Street.

Like many Iranian films that capture the joys and travails of everyday life, "A Time for Drunken Horses" is about a family. But this is also one of the first films about Kurdistan, filmed mostly in Kurdish and underscoring Kurdistan's separateness from the fierce political battles swirling in Tehran hundreds of miles away. About 8 percent of Iran's population is Kurdish, and most Kurds are Sunnis, not Shiites, as are most Iranians. There is no Islamic republic in the film ó no clerics, no call to prayer from the mosques, no photographs of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of Iran's revolution. Kurdish women wear their bright- colored tribal dress, not the long, black chadors worn by many of Iran's most religious women.

Filmed in the unforgiving terrain on Iran's border with Iraq, the film tells the story of a family of five children whose mother died in childbirth and whose father has disappeared in a smuggling operation across the land-mine-laden Iraqi border. Ayoub (which means Job), the teenage son, is left to provide for his three sisters and his brother, Madi, a sickly 15-year-old with deformities who has only a short time to live. Ayoub is determined to keep his sister Amaneh in school and, even more difficult, to earn the money for an expensive operation that will prolong Madi's life, though only for several months.

The young Ayoub becomes a smuggler, carrying heavy loads of tires and construction materials on mule caravans through the steep, snowy mountains to Iraq, dodging security forces of both countries. The title of the film refers to the alcohol that is poured into the drinking water of the mules, turning them tipsy but helping them endure the harsh cold. (The film is about mules that can make the trip across the mountain, not about horses, which probably could not. But, Mr. Ghobadi said, "The word mules doesn't sound good, especially in Farsi.")

One day Ayoub returns to find that his uncle has bartered his older sister, Rojine, as a bride to an Iraqi Kurd whose family has promised to pay for Madi's operation. In one of the most moving scenes of the film, Rojine crosses the mountains through the snow with Ayoub and Madi to meet her husband's family on a barren field at the border. Her mother-in-law, who has 10 children of her own, refuses to abide by the agreement to take in Madi, and then she refuses to grant Rojine a divorce.

But a deal is struck: the family of the groom gives Ayoub a mule, Madi goes back home, and Ayoub restarts his campaign to save his brother's life.

Mr. Ghobadi grew up in the Kurdish town of Baneh and studied filmmaking at a university in Tehran run by Iran's state-controlled television and radio. He worked as an assistant to Abbas Kiarostami, probably Iran's best-known director, who has been making films since before Iran's 1979 revolution. And he honed his skills by filming children in a day care center where he worked for three years and by making dozens of short films, mostly about neighbors and friends.

He decided to make his first feature film about Kurdistan primarily because it was the world he knew best. He said: "I belong there. I know the culture. Everything in the film sprang from my interaction with other Kurdish people. There are also misconceptions about the Kurds. They are always seen carrying guns and shooting people. Whenever I tell people I am going to Kurdistan, they say: `Be careful. They're going to cut your head off.' "

Indeed, Baneh was a haven for the "ready-to-die" Kurdish guerrillas who waged a rebellion until it was crushed by the Iranian Army. It remains a small, poor town, but today it is the filmmaker, not the guerrilla, who is the hero in Kurdistan, and Iran is now the 10th-largest producer of films in the world.

"When I walk down the streets, people approach me, young and old, with scripts," said Mr. Ghobadi, an affable man with well-groomed, slicked-back hair who is just beginning to fit into his new celebrity. "Now people are buying cameras. People are praying that their kids become filmmakers."

The film began without a script. Instead, like Mr. Kiarostami, his mentor, Mr. Ghobadi began to follow people around, pointing his camera at them. None of the actors are professionals. "I wanted the film to be a mixture of documentary and imagination," he said.

Mr. Ghobadi began the film with the cooperation and financing of the Farabi Cinema Foundation, an arm of Iran's vast Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture. Initially the permission, the camera, the film, some of the crew and even the catering were provided by the Islamic Republic. The culture minister, Ataollah Mohajerani, would check with the director on the film's progress.

But Mr. Ghobadi was dissatisfied with the initial rushes and decided that many scenes had to be shot again because of the weather. Despite the film's tundralike setting, it snows hard in Kurdistan only a few weeks of the year. (Indeed, most of the smuggling between Iran and Iraq is done in trucks and small vans on paved roads, and the smugglers who use mules work only two months of the year and seldom in the dismal conditions depicted in the film.) So he decided to wait for another winter. When the ministry balked at investing more money, he borrowed from family members and friends to buy out Farabi's rights. The entire production cost about $125,000.

In promoting his film around the world, Mr. Ghobadi has found himself cast in the role of a spokesman for the 20 million Kurds who inhabit a large swath of territory in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. "I consider myself an Iranian first and then a Kurdish Iranian," he said. "But people have turned me into a spokesperson for the Kurdish cause. Sure, there are a few thousand armed fighters who want independence. But instead of picking up a gun, let's pick up a camera."

Mr. Ghobadi acknowledged that the film's quasi-documentary style leaves the impression that it reflects real life in Kurdistan, but he said: "I don't want you to get the impression that Kurdistan looks like this. Kurdistan is very beautiful. I wanted it to be snow-covered to hide that beauty. I wanted a miserable, dismal environment." He also said that he sanitized the lives of the smuggling underworld.

"Smugglers don't have work 10 months of the year, so they don't have much to do, and that idleness causes addiction," Mr. Ghobadi said. "Sometimes in the smuggling operations the boys get raped by older smugglers. The whole situation disgusted me so much I didn't delve into it."

But the overarching message of the film ó familial love and loyalty ó resonates throughout. "Nothing can keep this boy from doing what he wants," Mr. Ghobadi said. "He isn't even afraid of dying. When he crosses the Iraqi border at the end, he doesn't know what will happen. Will he step on a mine? Will he be eaten alive by a wolf? Will he be captured by security forces?"

Mr. Ghobadi is already planning his second feature film. It is the story of a town in Iraq inhabited by 400 women, but no men. Except, that is, for Madi.


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