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
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
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
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
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
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.