And children shall lead them
Bahman Ghobadi’s prize-winning A Time for Drunken Horses is the latest in the notable line of Iranian films with children as protagonists. It’s by now an old device—using kids to heighten the emotional stakes in an expose of social injustices—with Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realist films from 1940s Italy (The Children Are Watching Us, Shoeshine and The Bicycle Thief) establishing the genre’s archetypes.
Ghobadi’s film is one of the starker entries in the Iranian series, but there’s a curious streak of romanticism and cuteness running though it as well. The basic premise is patently grim: The kids in question are Iranian Kurds struggling to survive dire poverty and rural isolation by working with smugglers on the border with Iraq. Bad weather, mountainous terrain, and ubiquitous landmines make their forays over the frontier all the more perilous.
Ayoub and Rojin, brother and sister orphaned by their father’s fatal encounter with a land mine, are determined to provide for their handicapped (and much smaller) older brother Medhi, who needs an operation for a life-threatening illness. Ayoub, Rojin, and Medhi are all played by non-professional actors, village kids using their own names. The gnomish Medhi Ekhtiar-Dini, an infant-sized teenager with a prematurely aged face, is a particularly haunting and memorable presence in the unfolding story of this brief feature.
Ghoman and cinematographer Sa’ed Nikzat make the harsh landscapes of the border locales an integral part of the story. The gray and brown garb of the juvenile smugglers quietly signals the union of character and terrain in their lives and reaffirms a ruggedness of spirit that seems to come naturally from the places they must traverse. As such, these figures in a landscape are part of a muted, impeccably modest adventure film.
In its long shots, A Time For Drunken Horses uses natural light and thereby suggests a grubby, deadpan realism. In its close-ups, however, the film uses artificial fill lighting and thus produces quietly heroic portraits with more than a hint of studio-style romanticism. That may sound like a contradiction, but perhaps Ghoman’s film is best seen as a work that adores its characters to the point of idealization but is too honest and illusionless to avoid being brutally forthright about their circumstances.
The title, by the way, refers to the smugglers’ practice of mixing quantities of alcohol into their mules’ water as both stimulant and a kind of anti-freeze for the dauntingly frigid treks they must make.