At many points while watching A Time for Drunken Horses, I felt as if I was flipping through a coffee-table book, full of pictures of the Kurds and their mountainous Iranian habitat. But if the film’s sparse dialogue and linear plot take place against a succession of beautiful and stirring background images, its focus is clearly on struggles, of individuals, a family, a village, and a people. Most importantly, the film shows the importance of family in the lives of its characters.
A Time for Drunken Horses looks at the turbulent existence of a group of orphaned Kurdish siblings—a young man, Ayoub (Ayoub Ahmadi), just entering adulthood; a crippled boy, Madi (Madi Ekhtiar-Dini), fighting to survive; a girl, Amaneh (Amaneh Ekhtiar-Dini), striving to help her family and obtain an education; and a young woman, Rojin (Rojin Younessi), raising her brothers and sisters, as she anticipates being married off and transported to another village. The film does not attempt to explain the causes of this family’s problems or the long-standing, historical hostilities behind many of their day-to-day difficulties. Instead of making bold political statements, Drunken Horses shows how its characters—and the people they represent—suffer, yet endure.
In his depiction of the Kurds, and especially this family, director Bahman Ghobadi closely examines the lives of ordinary citizens. His film depicts the daily experiences of this small family, offering them as a microcosm of the entire Kurd community. There is nothing fantastical about the movie, and the viewer might assume that the film’s events—such as Ayoub’s journey to secure for Madi a medical operation or Rojin’s acceptance of an arranged marriage in order to help Madi—are not extraordinary, even though they demonstrate the great courage of each of the primary characters. At the onset of the film, Ghobadi offers a written statement, saying that he is retelling the story of real people, as he knew them to be, underlining that they are “not a figment of my imagination.” He has made Drunken Horses, the epigraph continues, to instill a “deeper awareness” of the Kurds and their situation in his viewers, whom we can assume extend to a global audience.
In this sense, the film is political. And it achieves this “awareness” by way of a kind of literary naturalism translated to film, focused on daily details. In fact, A Time for Drunken Horses begins much like a documentary, with the voice of an unknown, unseen interviewer asking Amaneh a series of questions. Rather than setting up a distance between viewers and the girl, this scene encourages empathy. Later scenes allow viewers to forget the possibility of alternative attitudes towards these people and their situation, for instance, that of the ambushers who attack the villagers, who are smuggling goods to Iraq. Never in the film is it mentioned specifically who the ambushers are or why they are ambushing the villagers, yet we assume that they are Iraqi and they are attacking the Kurdish villagers for their smuggling. Focused on the victims’ despair, the film’s limited perspective does have a political effect, favoring the Kurdish perspective.
Still, the film doesn’t blame or condemn anyone for the Kurdish hardships, but instead concentrates on bringing attention to its protagonists’ many pains and privations. Sometimes, the film raises the “deeper awareness” by explicit contrasts. When Ayoub tacks a picture of a Western body-builder on the wall next to Madi, he’s in the foreground of the shot, and stares at it for a moment; the difference between him and the picture elucidates without words the distinction between his poverty and this icon of leisure and sports. In school, Amaneh learns about airplanes that traverse the world in a few hours, while it takes her brother the same amount of time to travel a few kilometers in order to make a small amount of money, as a smuggler, to buy her a school practice book and to save for Madi’s operation.
Although Ghobadi never outright denounces Western culture, its ignorance or affluence, the film implies as much. It shows viewers that even in a global economy, in which it is possible to distribute and communicate all kinds of images—including those in the film A Time for Drunken Horses—great poverty and suffering persists. Ghobadi does not provide any answers to problems he poses in Drunken Horses. The film ends abruptly, leaving viewers to wonder what might happen next, armed only with the few hints they’ve been given. Madi will most certainly die within either a few months or a few days. The other three siblings will most likely live longer than Madi, but quite possibly, not much longer. Viewers are left feeling unfulfilled and uneasy, but also knowing that the difficult lives of the Kurds, if not the film’s characters, will continue.