The Iranian film A Time For Drunken Horses follows the plight of a group of Kurdish children, siblings living in settlement camps along the Iran-Iraq border. We meet three of these children through some opening-credit dialogue a girl, Ameneh (Ameneh Ekhtiar-Dini), who seems to be about 10; her brother Ayoub (Ayoub Ahmadi), who seems to be about 12; and brother Madi (Mehdi Ekhtiar-Dini), a severely deformed dwarf with fiercely observant eyes. Madi later tries to tell someone that he s three years old (he holds up fingers; Madi doesn t speak in the film), but his siblings reveal that he is really 15.
The children are in a town near their home village where they are taken to work in a marketplace, wrapping glasses in paper for export. The children attempt to smuggle school textbooks back to camp, but the books are seized by the Iranian border patrol. Smuggling, it turns out, is part of the daily existence for this family. Their mother died giving birth to their youngest sibling and now their father supports them by smuggling goods via donkey across the Iraqi border, where things fetch a better price.
The film s title comes from the smugglers practice of feeding the donkeys alcohol so they ll work in the severe cold.
At the beginning of the film, as the children arrive back at the village from the marketplace, the protagonists father has just been killed by one of the many land mines that cover the Iran-Iraq border, throwing the young Ayoub into the role of family leader and provider. Ayoub is faced with the task of providing for his four siblings and trying to raise money for an operation for Madi. More than that, I will not reveal.
Iran has developed a reputation over the last decade for having one of the most fertile of all national cinemas, so much so that a few films have even filtered down to secondary U.S. markets such as Memphis, though we re still waiting for a big-screen glimpse of the acknowledged Iranian master, Abbas Kiarostami. Directed by first-time filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi (who served as an assistant on Kiarostami s The Wind Belongs To Us), A Time For Drunken Horses is brief (80 minutes), documentary spare, and utterly heartbreaking in part because the film is populated with non-professional actors, Kurds who, reportedly, are essentially playing themselves.
The film was made in the Kurdish village where Ghobadi, Iran s first Kurdish director, was born. Ameneh and Madi are played by real-life siblings, which gives their scenes together Ameneh blowing on Madi s face to keep him warn and constantly kissing his cheeks added poignancy. Viewers may have read about the plight of the Kurdish people in news reports, but this film will bring the story home with the kind of immediacy the printed word can t provide.
Compared to the only other modern Iranian films to have played Memphis Children of Heaven and The Color of ParadiseA Time For Drunken Horses is less cloying and sentimental and consequently even more powerful. The matter-of-fact documentary power of the film, if not necessarily its artistry, is much more shattering than the Italian Neorealist films (such as Vittorio De Sica s The Bicycle Thief) it has understandably been compared with. Rather, A Time For Drunken Horses evokes the likes of Luis Bunuel s Land Without Bread, the satirical social critic s straightforward travelogue of poverty in Northern Spain.
Moving without being manipulative, A Time For Drunken Horses may not be a great work of cinema, but it confirms the simple, communicative power of the medium itself like few other recent films. And it makes pretty much everything else adorning the multiplexes right now seem profanely irrelevant by comparison.