Children’s crusade

A poignant moment in <i>A Time for Drunken Horses.</i>

A poignant moment in A Time for Drunken Horses.

Rated 4.0

A Time for Drunken Horses Bahman Ghobadi’s powerful, heart-gnawing, documentary-like feature debut, A Time for Drunken Horses, plunges us into the lives of five orphaned siblings living in an Iran-Iraq border village in Kurdistan. Ghobadi escorts us deep into the extraordinary economic and emotional adversity of innocents, but also into the culture of the 20 million predominantly Sunni Muslim Kurds in a region (the plateau and mountain area of southwest Asia that includes parts of Turkey, Syria and Armenia) where they have traditionally resisted majority rule by other nations despite a lack of political unity.

The three brothers and two sisters at risk here lost their mother to complications during childbirth and soon lose their father to a land mine. An uncle who has eight children of his own takes them into his home, but they generally must fend for themselves. Adolescent Ayoub (played by Ayoub Ahmadi) has become the proxy patriarch of the impoverished brood. He hitches daily rides to a nearby small-town bazaar in the back of a Toyota pickup truck. There he earns money by wrapping gifts for shoppers, toiling as a human beast of burden and smuggling such goods as school workbooks under his clothes.

Madi (Mehdi Ekhtiar-Dini), Ayoub’s older but stunted, deformed, crippled brother, takes bitter-tasting pills that no longer extinguish his physical pain and injections in the butt that make him cry like a preschooler. News from the doctor is that Madi has two options: cross into urban Iraq and get an operation that will extend his life 7 to 8 months, or die in rural Iran in 4 months. Madi’s siblings make it their crusade to buy him that extra time here on earth.

Ghobadi wrote, directed, produced and acted as art director on the film, which co-won the Camera d’Or this year at Cannes. He was raised in a small town in the Kurdish region of Iran and returned to the area to shoot over two frigid winters. The result is a riveting slice of neo-realism in which desolate, panoramic vistas complement the starkness of the story, and hand-held cameras provide a sense of desperation and urgency. The actors are nonprofessionals from the same village in Baneh. They give flawless performances as characters that are very much like themselves and the lean use of dialogue and music keeps sentimentality at bay while Mother Nature turns wintry mountain winds into an Oscar-caliber soundtrack.

Drunken Horses gets its title from the practice of smugglers spiking their mules water with vodka to get them to travel over the mountains in adverse weather conditions: the colder the weather, the more the hooch. It is filled with many memorable images. One scene in which the smugglers try to escape an ambush with huge truck tires lashed to the sides of their pack animals is as chaotic and surreal as it is poetic. A scene in which Ayoub instructs a waterless Madi to swallow a pill using his own saliva is moving without a hint of self-pity or syrupy emotion. And seeing Madi stuffed into a saddlebag like smuggled stash will not be easily forgotten.

Drunken Horses is about an intense sense of family, unwavering devotion, unconditional love, shouldered responsibilities, sacrifice and courage. I didn’t like the ending. It felt too sudden, like the camera simply ran out of film. But that’s a small gripe about a story in which the basic necessities of life are continually elusive and the passion to forge ahead is the only finger in a dyke leaking overwhelming despair.

A Time for Drunken Horses is opening at a very opportune moment. It dramatically paints surrogate faces and heritage on the 300 Kurdish children who—together with another 600 illegal Kurdish immigrants—were crammed into the cargo bays of a rusting freighter for eight hellish days before the ship was intentionally run aground by smugglers Feb. 17 some 20 yards off the French Riviera. More important, it stands as a grim reminder that some people have only one modest ambition for the future: to have a normal life. You know, the one most of us Westerners constantly take for granted.