English Title: A Time For Drunken Horses
Original Title: Zamani Bara-ye Masti Asb-ha
Country of Origin: Iran
Studio: Bahman Ghobadi Films, Farabi Cinema Foundation
Director: Bahman Ghobadi
Producer(s): Bahman Ghobadi
Screenplay: Bahman Ghobadi
Cinematographer: Saed Nikzat
Art Director: Bahman Ghobadi
Editor: Samad Tavazoee
Runtime: 80 minutes
Genre: Drama, War film
Starring/Cast: Ayoub Ahmadi, Amaneh Ekhtiar-dini, Madi Ekhtiar-dini , Rojin Younessi
Set in the barren landscape of the border between Iran and Iraq, the film focuses on the plight of a family of Kurds trying desperately to eke out a living. While the father works smuggling goods to Iraq via the treacherous snow-laden mountains, the family’s five children are left alone to fend for themselves − their mother having died during childbirth. Adding to their woes, the eldest boy, Mahdi suffers from a congenital disease, leaving his growth severely stunted and his health poor. The family can barely afford the medicines needed to keep him alive. The other children all pitch in, Ayoub and his little sister Ameneh work tirelessly doing menial tasks at the local bazaar while their elder sister Roozhin takes care of the home and the baby. When their father is killed by one of the landmines that litter the smugglers’ route, the children are left to fend entirely for themselves. The hero of the story, Ayoub, struggles endlessly to make sure Mahdi is taken care of, and to earn the money needed for him to have a potentially life-saving operation. But no matter how hard they work, life continues to be highly precarious in this harsh and impoverished environment.
Bahman Ghobadi’s debut feature expands upon the tradition of child-centred films that emerged in Iran in the mid-1990s. Following in the steps of Kiarostami, Pahani and Majidi, Ghobadi uses the talents of non-professional child actors − in this case Kurdish children − who may well have been intimately familiar with the conditions in which their characters live. The opening scene introduces us to the chaotic mise en scène of the bazaar where the camera − adopting a child’s eye view − introduces us to three of the film’s child protagonists who work busily wrapping glassware in newspaper or carrying heavy goods to awaiting trucks. Filmed with a mobile camera and cutting every few seconds, sound and image create a frenetic and urgent atmosphere around these children and the many others who work tirelessly alongside them. Like many of the Iranian films featuring children, A Time For Drunken Horses presents these children not at play, but by necessity having to confront the issues of the adult world almost in the absence of adults. In fact, for the first few minutes, Ghobadi keeps his camera trained on the children alone, capturing only glimpses of adults as a surging and undifferentiated mass of heads or legs. In contrast, the children are predominantly shot in one-shots, giving them a privileged position in the film’s cinematic language. This cinematic privileging of children is further emphasized as the tiny figure of Mahdi steps into frame from behind a row of bicycles, his back to us and clad in a yellow jacket. Although he is barely taller than a bicycle wheel, his canary-yellow jacket makes a striking contrast with the black tires and pants of the men who tower over him, granting him significant visual status and foreshadowing the important role he will play throughout the film as the centre of the family and an emblem of their struggle to survive. The many one-shots of Mahdi present him as a simultaneously helpless and noble figure, around whom his loving brother and sisters rally. The perspective of children is further emphasized by the intermittent voice over of Ayoub’s little sister Ahmaneh, who narrates the family’s story.
Unlike many of the child-centred films from Iran, in this film, Ghobadi does not attempt to present the children as metaphorical substitutes for adults, or as foils against the censorship of male/female interaction. Instead, here the children function more as figurations of the future: resilient against poverty and illness, yet seemingly trapped in a hopeless situation as much determined by socio-economic status as by the unforgiving environment, which itself becomes a character in the film. In fact, despite this cinematic privileging of the child’s perspective, the adult socio-cultural world eventually intervenes to lay claim upon these orphans. While the children’s uncle has effectively relinquished any responsibility for their financial and physical well-being, leaving young Ayoub in charge, he does step in to negotiate a marriage between Roozhin and a man from a distant village. Although an agreement is reached that she will take Mahdi, whose medical treatment will be paid for by the groom’s family, upon seeing him, they refuse to take him and Ayoub has no choice but to carry him to Iraq himself. The open ending − Ayoub and Mahdi cross a coil of barbed wire stretched across the deep now-covered landscape − is characteristic of many post-revolutionary Iranian films. It effectively allows the viewer to decide Mahdi’s fate. Indeed, the film itself, which won the prestigious ‘Camera d’Or’ at the 2002 ‘Cannes International Film Festival’, asks us to do just that: to pay attention to an oft-neglected part of the world and the troubles faced by its inhabitants.