A Time for Drunken Horses

(Zamani barayé masti ashba, Bahman Ghobadi, Iran, 1999)


One of the first things you notice about this film is its striking but completely matter-of-fact treatment of a snow-bound landscape. In films as diverse as The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Affliction (1998), Winter Sleepers (1997) and The Pledge (2001), the merest sight of snow seems to lull directors into a slow, churning, melancholic reverie.

Not here. The mainly young characters suffer incredible hardships and their efforts at surviving in this landscape – as well as the efforts of the filmmakers in recording it realistically – register in a palpable way. But director Bahman Ghobadi (making his debut feature) never stoops to the level of overstated bathos or sentimentality. This harsh world simply exists, and the humble heroes of the film make their way as best they can within it.

A Time for Drunken Horses has much in common with other outstanding films from Iran that have been (too) slowly trickling into Australian arthouse circuit. It is a movie about young people shot neo-realistically – that is, with non-professional actors (most of whom use their own first names) in natural locations. It presents a fragment of everyday life, poised between immense hopelessness and a sense of ever-renewed spirituality and beauty.

The content of the film is distinctive in focusing on the situation of the Kurds. Ghobadi prefaces the film with a written statement declaring: "I was born and raised in a small Kurdish region of Iran. My childhood and adolescent memories have been the strongest source of influence for my films ... I made this film as a humble tribute to my cultural heritage".

The Kurds we see on screen are constantly on the move, smuggling various goods across the border. It's a tough life for them and also their horses – the title refers to the fact that, in order to endure the bitterly cold snow, these animals are fuelled with vodka. Ghobadi concentrates on a broken family unit, consisting primarily of an adolescent boy, Ayoub (Ayoub Ahmadi), his younger sister, Ameneh (Ameneh Ekhtiar-Dini) and their handicapped brother, Madi (Madi Ekhtiar-Dini).

Calling these characters children is not exactly accurate. In the absence of adult protectors, Ayoub and Ameneh must quickly take on mature responsibilities and emotions; and Madi is, despite the mental and physical ravages brought on by his condition, already fifteen years old. Nonetheless, their literal, diminished size seems to place them on a special, separate plane of reality, allowing them a unique perception of events which Ghobadi reinforces with his camera kept close to the ground.

The film's style is as distinctive as its content. Ghobadi has a manner that sets him part from better-known compatriots like Abbas Kiarostami (ABC Africa, 2001), Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Gabbeh, 1996) and Jafar Panahi (The Circle, 2001). He favours neither an elliptical minimalism nor a bustling cinéma vérité effect. Ghobadi constructs scenes in a stripped down, precise way, giving a weight to static compositions and carefully chosen cuts.

The film has a simple but very moving lyricism. The terrors of the world for these Kurds are recorded without excessive dramatic underlining. The plot never lingers on such powerful incidents as the moment when the eldest member of this family group, Rojin (Rojin Younessi) must join another family in marriage and give up the care of Madi.

Brief (at 77 minutes) and vivid, A Time for Drunken Horses is a rich, illuminating portrait of a people and a way of life.

© Adrian Martin August 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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