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Crossing the Border 

Bahman Ghobadi tells a breathtaking story of Kurdish children on the war-torn border of Iran and Iraq

My friend David Meyer, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and the author of the film-noir study A Girl and a Gun, sent me an e-mail the other day that began:

"Saw A Time for Drunken Horses last night and found it, except for one or two moments, the most moving film I've seen in months. A friend asked me recently when the last time was I stopped thinking as I watched a film. I could not remember, but this short-circuited the front brain and affected me profoundly. Like Dreiser, but also much like Dickens or The 400 Blows. And like the Iranian films I know, it featured astonishing use of naturally occurring color, minimal dialogue, clear visual storytelling and a commitment to the lives of the participants that borders on the saintly ... it's still running through my head."

I quote that message not only to provide an opinion of Bahman Ghobadi's film other than that of yours truly, a notoriously biased Iranophile, but also because I think David's words offer a particularly concise yet eloquent summation of a reaction I've now heard many, many times to A Time for Drunken Horses, an Iranian production which dramatizes the lives of Kurdish children who inhabit a perilous region of smugglers along the Iran-Iraq border.

If you've been tuned into this column in recent months, the film may seem like a running theme by now. In September, I reported on its U.S. debut at the Telluride Film Festival, where it drew rapturous praise from filmmakers including Werner Herzog and proved so much the hands-down audience favorite that extra showings had to be scheduled. Later that month in Tehran I saw it awarded the critics' prize for best picture at Iran's equivalent of the Oscars. (This was followed by a further coup: A couple of weeks ago A Time for Drunken Horses was named Iran's submission to next spring's U.S. Oscars, a particular honor in a year when a number of strong Iranian films have captured awards at film festivals all over the world.)

For filmgoers who've heard of the current surge in Iranian cinema but have yet to experience it, A Time for Drunken Horses is easily one of the best places to start. That's not because it outdoes the intricate and extraordinarily sophisticated cinematic visions found in the movies of Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Gabbeh) or Abbas Kiarostami (whose The Wind Will Carry Us has yet to reach the Triangle). Rather, it's because Ghobadi's film gives us Iranian cinema at its most pure and elemental, with virtues that are as invigorating as spring water.

Ghobadi is a 30-year-old Kurd who grew up near the border his film depicts during the Iran-Iraq war, a horrific, eight-year struggle that left a million dead and regions of both countries littered with bombs and land mines. Such is the landscape into which A Time for Drunken Horses plunges us. People in the impoverished area earn money by smuggling goods across the craggy mountains into the opposite country (an endeavor partly stimulated by the international sanctions against Iraq, of course). The perils they face are many: border patrols, bandits, the deadly mines that are sometimes just feet away from the main trail, and the winter snows. It's from the latter that the film gets its title: Smugglers dose the drinking water of their mules with liquor to numb them to the cold.

Ghobadi's tale focuses on siblings who are obliged to fend for themselves since their mother is dead and their father has disappeared on smuggling operations. Ayoub (Ayoub Ahmadi) and his sister Ameneh (Ameneh Ekhtiar-Dini) are able-bodied teens who take care of their brother Madi (Mehdi Ekhtiar-Dini), who's afflicted with dwarfism and other ailments that require constant pills and injections.

The film has a great opening. As Ameneh provides a simple, understated narration, we see the kids in the teeming bazaar of a town near their village. They are wrapping drinking glasses in paper to prevent breakage when they're hauled across the border: the kind of simple job kids can do to pick up some money. The place is chaotic, and every so often the chaos explodes when some man on a truck offers day work to the boys who are milling about. The jobs are so intensely sought that sometimes the clamor to get them provokes fistfights.

The way Ghobadi films this milieu establishes his artistic signature right away. We are tossed into the midst of all the tussling and hustling with very little to orient us either to the place or to the people we're meant to be following. Ghobadi often shoots from low angles, a kid's perspective, which increases our sense of grasping for visual landmarks. There's a documentary feel to the images, yet no documentary has quite the intense-yet-understated eloquence that shapes this dizzying, beautifully photographed sequence, which ends with the kids climbing aboard a truck that will take them out of the city, into the mountains.

The crucial dilemma that animates the story involves Madi. With his large, liquid eyes, he is a speechless teenager trapped in a child's shrunken, wasting body, and his siblings are given to understand that his prospects are bleaker still. Without the operation he needs, he will last only a few weeks. With the operation, he still will live only a matter of months.

For Ayoub and Ameneh, there is no decision: Madi must have the operation. But how to get the money when they have none? One possible solution that comes later in the story involves Ameneh marrying into an Iraqi family. A more immediate and enduring prospect, though, is for Ayoub to join the contraband-laden human and mule caravans that trek across the wintry mountains, into Iraq.

Immediately identifiable by the oversized cap-with-earflaps he always wears, Ayoub has a face that's a great mix of aggressive determination and youthful sensitivity. (One of Drunken Horses' marvels--which it shares with other Iranian films--is the extraordinary freshness of the performances Ghobadi gets from a nonprofessional cast recruited in the film's actual locations.) The boy here is being pushed into manhood, and Ghobadi captures the moment with great feeling and faultless understatement. Ayoub neither complains nor boasts. He does what he has to do, learning about the smuggling life's many hazards as he goes.

One minor but telling aspect of the film is the way it portrays adults. None has a large part in the story, yet they form a fascinatingly variegated backdrop, from the helpful doctor to a bemused teacher to the much harder types Ayoub encounters along the trail. These characters feel so right, so authentic and believably shaded that it makes you realize that the characters we're accustomed to seeing on screens are invariably movie-tailored fabrications. There's no Ben Affleck or Will Smith or their like here. Ghobadi told me that some of the film's smugglers are the real thing, playing bit parts as a lark.

Granted, many previous Iranian films have used kid-centered stories and nonprofessional actors to equally stunning effect; the way Drunken Horses portrays its youngsters has a slight sheen of idealization, and there's more than a hint of old-fashioned melodrama to its premise. Even so, Ghobadi's film emerges as one of the year's best due to a striking combination of artistic assurance, moral vision and sheer conviction that belongs to it alone.

I first met Bahman Ghobadi three years ago at a party in Tehran to which Mohsen Makhmalbaf took me. He was a shy, bearded, extremely polite young Kurd, apparently not long down from the mountains, yet Makhmalbaf and others assured me he was one of Iran's most promising young filmmakers. This says a lot: Ghobadi subsequently worked as Kiarostami's assistant on The Wind Will Carry Us, which was shot in Kurdistan, and Kiarostami liked him so much that he offered him a script he'd written. The last time the master scripted a film that was directed by one of his assistants, the result was The White Balloon, which became the most successful Iranian film ever released. But Ghobadi politely declined the offer because, he said, he had a story to tell--his own people's story.

The Kurds, an ancient ethnic group, number 20 million and spread across an area that covers parts of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. They are mainly Sunni Muslims, as opposed to Iran's Shiite majority. Though recent history has been cruel to them, it seems there is little prospect of an independent Kurdistan. Their main hopes depend on the tolerance of their host countries and the understanding of the outside world, regarding which A Time for Drunken Horses has a lot to say about the superiority of art--remember art?--to any number of TV news clips or even good documentaries.

In Telluride, I watched Ghobadi speak to group of high school kids, including Navajos, who had just seen his film. He told about how his whole family had worked on the production (his mother's tasks included praying for the right weather), about how they hauled the cameras up the mountains by mule, and how he used the prize money he got at Cannes to build a school for his village.

One of these American kids suddenly said, "Mr. Ghobadi, you are such a wonderful person, I think I am going to cry." At that point, pretty much everyone in the room was misty-eyed, and I thought of the word my friend David later used: saintly. When was the last time you heard that term applied to a young American filmmaker? EndBlock

  • Ghobadi's "A Time for Drunken Horses" gives us Iranian cinema at its most pure and elemental.

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