Essential Insights: Top Critics on “A Time for Drunken Horses”

A Time for Drunken Horses

This is a very remarkable film: a blazingly passionate, spiritual bulletin from a contemporary front-line of almost unimaginable hardship. Bahman Ghobadi’s movie is about a group of orphaned Kurdish children who live on the poverty line in a village near the Iran-Iraq border. Periodically, the children scramble aboard a truck to take them to Iraq to work in the market, or as foot- soldiers in various smuggling scams. That, or they transport heavy tyres in the snow and terrible cold – backbreaking work for which they are routinely cheated of their pay, and for which the conditions are so appalling that the mules and horses have to be fed whisky to get them to work.

This is a film with a fierce, spare, beautiful cinematic language, a movie with a steely clarity that does not diminish its compassion and spiritual generosity.

– Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

We modern folks are so blase about the phenomenon of movies that the sheer miracle of a film like “A Time for Drunken Horses” could escape notice. It takes viewers to a place they’ve barely thought of. Once there, this picture presents us with characters of such humanity and dignity that it begins to seem obscene that until now we haven’t exactly given all that much thought to the Kurds.

The life presented here is brutal, almost unbearable. Yet the countryside is beautiful. Ghobadi has created a film of stunning vistas — and aching tenderness.

– Mick La Salle, The San Francisco Chronicle


The story is set in Baneh in Kurdistan, a region that takes up parts of Iran, Iraq and Turkey. That is also the village where writer-director Bahman Ghobadi was born, and like much of Kurdistan, it was bombed extensively during the Iran-Iraq war. Though loosely based on a story that Ghobadi used for an earlier short film, the film dramatizes the real struggles of these children. He discovered his cast in Baneh — not only were they not actors, but they didn’t understand what movies were.

“The very first day I went there,” explains Ghobadi through a translator while visiting the Toronto International Film Festival, “I put the camera on a tripod, gathered the children and explained to them what they were, because they’d never seen a tripod or a camera. They didn’t know what a movie was — they’ve never had electricity and haven’t seen any movies. Since the camera is obviously expensive and my assistant was guarding it so intensely, no one could even get close to it. That caused even more curiosity.”

– Jason Anderson, Eye Weekly

The larger message is perhaps in code. The Iranian cinema, agreed to be one of the most creative in the world today, often makes films about children so that politics seem beside the point, even if they are not. First-time filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi, who wrote and directed this film, may or may not have intended to do anything but tell his simple story, but the buried message argues for the rights of ethnic minorities in Iran and everywhere.

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

The planet’s lone major Kurdish filmmaker, Bahman Ghobadi is also the most satirical and least self-conscious of the big Iranian New Wave voices, which is probably why in 10 years all five of his features have found American release. But don’t take this to mean that Ghobadi is a lightweight; his films bristle with appalling realism and grim truth from one of the world’s most troubled landscapes. Among film artists of state-less nations—now there’s an idea for a retrospective—Ghobadi may be preeminent because his films are both accessible and uncompromising.

– Michael Atkinson, The Village Voice


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