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Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2002
Across the border, into true empathy
Finding an Iranian film without a fresh-faced kid in the lead role these days is about as easy as finding an American film without a gun, or a French film without a cigarette; every culture has its tropes. But some critics have suggested that Iranian filmmakers are playing it safe, that by focusing on children they're avoiding adult topics that might attract the attention of the censors.
This is a dubious criticism: Most of the Iranian directors I've spoken with don't give a toss about what the authorities think. But if you're really looking to disprove that theory, look no further than "A Time For Drunken Horses," the debut feature from director Bahman Ghobadi.
Yes, the film focuses on an earnest 12-year-old named Ayoub and his younger sister Amaneh, but this is not a rose-colored look at childhood; rather, it's a stark look at the sudden imposition of adult responsibility on someone of such a tender age. And apolitical it is definitely not.
Ayoub (Ayoub Ahmadi) lives in a remote Kurdish village in northwestern Iran, close to the border with Iraq. He and Amaneh (Amaneh Ekhtiari) work various odd jobs to support their siblings; both their parents are dead, and their brother Madi (Mehdi Ekhtiar-Dini) is crippled by illness, leaving the tiny 15-year-old in need of an operation if he is to live to see another year.
Ayoub has assumed responsibility for the family and he takes on a dangerous job, working with smugglers who traverse the snowy mountain trails to cross the border into Iraq. They trade in tires, and load their mules with such heavy burdens that they must ply them with alcohol before making the trek. Harsh weather, bandits, unscrupulous traders and border guards are just some of the hazards Ayoub must deal with.
Like many Iranian films of late, particularly Abolfazl Jalili's "Delbaran," or Samira Makhmalbaf's "Blackboards," which Ghobadi acted in, "Drunken Horses" operates in a gray area between fiction and reality. The action is staged for the cameras, but the cast -- who all share the names of their characters -- are in reality Kurdish villagers who are living the kind of lives depicted on the screen. Little Mehdi does, in fact, need that operation, and even the director was born and raised in the region, drawing on his own experiences in shaping the film.
By using nonprofessionals, Ghobadi adheres to the Italian neorealist ideal (as do so many Iranian directors), finding an emotional honesty and unforced naturalism that makes for profoundly moving cinema. Certainly, audiences will be shocked to see the harsh conditions these kids must endure: A simple blank notebook or a photo clipped from a glossy magazine become treasured possessions. In the film's closest flirtation with irony, a young boy in Amaneh's village school recites from a textbook a passage on the wonderful development of aircraft, how people can fly from one place to another in mere hours. This, for kids who can't even afford their own mule, let alone a car. ("No fly zone," indeed.)
This sort of film -- humanist, and deeply rooted in reality -- has no parallel in the cinema exported from Hollywood. American cinema, by and large, is predicated on success. Triumph over adversity you can show, but God forbid that someone would actually be beaten down by circumstance. U.S. critic Roger Ebert rightly pointed out the sheer stupidity of an online film reviewer who said that he might have found "Drunken Horses" more engaging "if my life was more pathetic."
This is the result of a steady diet of feel-good and success stories: the atrophy of empathy. Films that also awaken our compassion are just as important, especially those that awaken our anger. The difference between realism and fantasy lies in the fact that in reality, sometimes your best effort is not enough, and that's something we all need to be reminded of from time to time. To forget that fact is to court arrogance.
Ayoub stoically, even good-naturedly, works like a dog to help is brother and sister, but what can one kid do in the face of a society beaten down by decades of war, political repression and cultural dispossession? If you're not moved by what you see here, check your pulse.
A footnote: I'd like to add my voice to the protest against the short-sighted stupidity of the U.S. State Department, which led to Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami being denied a visa to attend the New York Film Festival. Iranian directors are clearly not terrorists, and any fool can see -- through their films and comments -- that they are the strongest supporters of liberalization within Iran.