A time for drunken horses

The images are as stark and desolate as the landscape. Men, women, and children begging for an opportunity to make money, perhaps just enough to put food on the table. They come to a trading outpost in the middle of nowhere, hoping that their services as human mules will be needed by the smugglers who pass through the outpost.

It’s sad, almost frightening, to watch as the children do whatever it takes to make ends meet. It’s obvious that they don’t have much, so the pittance they earn wrapping glassware in paper or lugging contraband across the border means a lot.

For small, frail Madi and his family, it means life and death. Madi, who lives with his brothers and sisters in a small village in the Kurdish region of Iran, is dying from a crippling disease. His only hope lies in an operation that the family cannot afford. Determined to make his younger brother’s final days comfortable, Ayoub takes it upon himself to earn the money.

Filled with heartbreak and hope, director Bahman Ghobadi’s “A Time For Drunken Horses” provides a rare glimpse into a world that is seldom seen by western audiences. Shot in Kurdish on actual locations on the Iran-Iraq border, Ghobadi’s film features non-actors playing the characters.

The amazing thing about the film is how deep and soulful these people are. There’s history in their eyes, and they use that history to convey the very emotions the director is after. There isn’t a false performance in the film.

Mehdi Ekhtiar-Dini is absolutely heartbreaking as the courageous Madi. He doesn’t say much, but his eyes speak volumes. There’s honest fear and hope in his eyes, and when it comes time for his regular injections, real pain. This diminutive actor delivers a towering performance. His fate becomes important to us. Even though we know his character is eventually doomed, we share the hope of his family.

As older brother Ayoub, forced to become the man of the family after their mother dies and their smuggler father is gone, Ayoub Ahmadi also stands tall. It’s another brave performance, one filled with strength and admiration. You admire this kid so much that you’re right there with him every step of the way as he makes the treacherous trek from the outpost back to the village. It’s a harrowing journey, one filled with remnants of the Iran-Iraq border wars.

There’s constant reminders of the war. Ayoub encounters one youth who works as a mule even though his family has a farm. We learn that the farm is unusable because of the numerous land mines dotting the landscape. The smugglers must also evade ambushes and border patrols. All this or the privilege of living in a mud and rock shanty with no real amenities. To the privileged, it’s squalor. To Ayoub and his family, it’s their life.

I was especially fond of Ameneh Ekhtiar-Dini’s thoughtful performance as Ayoub’s younger sister Ameneh. From the first time we meet her in the streets of the outpost, her wide yet not so innocent eyes looking for help, we become lost in her world. Ameneh narrates most of the film, and becomes our tour guide through their amazing if not horrific existence. The fact that she still has time and desire to learn from banned exercise books makes her something special. She’s an angel watching over her family, and it’s almost impossible not to weep for her.

Director Ghobadi has created a mesmerizing film filled with awesome beauty and honest heartache. His script is sparse but filled with essential passages of dialogue. He trusts his performers to convey his message, and they do so willingly. The director takes chances that most mainstream filmmakers would happily avoid. He forces us to confront the issues, yet leaves us filled with hope, much like his characters.

Director of Photography Sa’ed Nikzat captures all of this with images that are beautiful to look at, even when they focus on the ugliness of it all. One moment we’re trapped with the characters in a bleak snow drift, the next against a beautiful sunset that could double as a postcard. Through it all Nikzat keeps us up close and personal.

How wonderful to be able to get a glimpse of this world, told from the perspective of a fresh yet very assured filmmaker who shoots what he knows. “A Time For Drunken Horses,” which gets its name from the practice of getting the mules and horses drunk so they will endure the cold trek, isn’t perfect, but it is satisfying.

Bravo to Shooting Gallery, who picked up this overlooked gem as part of the Fall Film Series. Films like “A Time for Drunken Horses” deserve a chance to find an audience.


Caught between Iraq and a hard place


Ayoub Ahmadi, Rojin Younessi, Ameneh Ekhtiar-Dini, Mehdi-Dini. Directed by Bahman Ghobadi. Unrated. 77 Minutes.


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