Bahman Ghobadi
A Time for Drunken Horses
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Writer/director: Bahman Ghobadi
Language: Kurdish, Persian
Country: Iran
Actor: Ayoub Ahmadi, Rojin Younessi, Amaneh Ekhtiar-dini, Madi Ekhtiar-dini, Kolsolum Ekhtiar-dini, Karim Ekhtiar-dini, Rahman Salehi, Osman Karimi, Nezhad Ekhtiar-dini
Format: 80 minutes
Website category: Asian
Review date: 26 January 2012
It's another 2000 Iranian film about Kurds living (or dying) in nightmarish conditions near the Iran-Iraq border. It's written and directed by Bahman Ghobadi, who was one of the teachers in Blackboards. Personally I preferred Blackboards, but this is powerful too.
The two films also have specific similarities. Both are based around children, as were other Iranian films around then (The Wind Will Carry Us, The Children of Heaven, Daan). It's a simple technique, but always capable of being horribly effective and doubly so in this kind of near-documentary style. The children aren't professional actors. It's better than that. They're simply real children being themselves, for instance using their real names, and unsurprisingly they're good at that. Ghobadi directs them well, bringing them alive for the camera and letting us feel that we know what they're thinking and what troubles them. They feel both like real children and real people facing a struggle to survive, instead of just being child-shaped symbols or movie plot coupons.
What's different from Blackboards?
We're not quite so out of touch with civilisation this time. Blackboards felt as if its itinerant Kurds were being bombed and war-blasted back to the Stone Age, but here we're in a village with doctors, trucks and schools. However our protagonists only seem to be loosely rooted in the modern world... they're sort of on the fringe. They can get pills and injections for their crippled brother and they're even aware that he needs an operation, but these kids are living in the socio-political equivalent of one of those deep-sea ecosystems you find around volcanic vents.
Principle: if men with guns don't want you to do something, there will always be money to be made from doing it. That's where money comes from in this village. You smuggle stuff across the border. Maybe you have a mule. Maybe you have a truck. Maybe all you have is your own two legs and the great good luck not to be dead, what with all the machine-gun fire, ambushes and land mines. The latter are particularly destructive to the local economy, incidentally. The farmers aren't growing any food on their farms, because any attempt to do so will get them blown to bits. Random death might strike anyone and frequently does, so it's perfectly normal for small children to come home one day and find themselves orphans.
Our heroes are three sisters and two brothers. The only good news is that they can't lose their mother, because she died several years ago. She was taking a chance on that life-threatening gamble called "childbirth".
I haven't mentioned the worst news yet, though. Remember that crippled brother? He's dying. He's got a month to live if he doesn't get an operation, or else seven or eight months if he does. Naturally his siblings are willing to do anything to help him... but you know their efforts are eventually going to prove futile and in the meantime it's perfectly possible that everyone will die of other causes anyway. This makes the film less compelling than it might be, to be honest. These children might ruin their lives trying to achieve the impossible, to whatever extent that those lives didn't come pre-ruined.
Blackboards was more horrifying, I think, but both of these films are amazing and admirable.
Their world is surprising. They have snow! This shouldn't be surprising in the mountains, but seeing little children struggling through scenic frozen landscapes is yet another unexpected kind of "this shouldn't be happening". This also brings me to the title, which isn't metaphorical. If you have a mule, it's your financial lifeline, but animals suffer from the cold like anyone else. The answer: booze. Hence a time for drunken horses.
There are little details I didn't expect (why's that boy ginger?) as well as big ones. The strangest relics of Western civilisation will eventually drift out here and the most incomprehensible thing in the movie to me is the fact that one of our heroes buys one of these surreal artefacts. He pays money! (Well, sort of. Ish.) This film won a hatful of awards, including half of the Camera d'Or at Cannes, and I have no problem with that. Watch it. Step out of your life for a while.