Monthly Archives: March 2021

  • A Time for Drunken Horses (Dema hespên serxweş) Bahman Ghobadi (Iran;2000)

    A Time for Drunken Horses (Dema hespên serxweş) Bahman Ghobadi (Iran;2000) Ayoub Ahmadi, Rojin Younessi; Amaneh Ekhtiar-dini

    Viewed Mubi 18 March 2021

    beware the pain of the child

    There is an overwhelming feel of shock from Ghobadi’s film of seeing what we do not normally see.   The shock of being exposed to a life that in the harshness of its conditions the rawness of its everyday experience shames the viewer seated in the comfort of his chair. What we see in ‘A Time for Drunken Horses’ may or may not be re-enactments, but it is evident what we see is real.

    ‘A Time for Drunken Horses’ (TDH) is Ghobadi’s first feature film. It is notable that he worked with Kairostami on ‘The Wind will Carry Us’ a year before directing this movie, the which will have given him much food for thought.

    Kairostami’s movies always start from an embedding a grounding in the fabric of life, and from within this fabric perspectives emerge which align the viewer to the images. There is often a sense of playfulness in Kairostami’s films, a sense of the absurd as part of the grain of existence.

    In Ghobadi’s ‘TDH’ there no gradated movement into the action, everything is immediately totally clear. The viewer is dropped straight into the cold stark reality of the lives of his protagonists, children in general but in particular the children of a Kurdish family living on the Iran-Iraq border, existing precariously through the business of smuggling and child labour.

    From the privileged European perspective, the scene of ruthless employment of child labour that opens the film is graphic. Of course Western economy is driven by child labour: textiles electronics the recycling of our discarded matter, all take advantage of the poverty of other countries in order to exploit child labour, because child labour costs little more than the price of feeding them, so there is a high return on the surplus value their work creates. A situation that in some respects resembles the Nazis use of forced labour. But for the most part, we the viewers are far removed from the reality of the work conditions that underlie the things we consume so avidly. So here is the reality into which Ghobadi plunges us like a bath of icy water. Ghobadi is making films in the situation, from within the people, so that he can show these things. Not as anything extraordinary but as the day to day ordinary life of these children, an actuality that is all that they know.

    Ghobadi’s film for the most part keeps a sense of balance in its depiction of the child subjects. There is an admix of the social and the personal, the use of the wide shot and the close up. There is of course no one line that divides these two zones rather they intermerge overlapping tapering into one another. It seems important that in the making of ‘TDH’ that Ghobadi avoid shots that in themselves exploit the vulnerability of children, that there is an integrity in the manner and style in which he films, an implicit contract with the viewers that Ghobadi avoids joining the ranks of the exploiters.  But there are moments when his choice of shot transgresses this contract. In particular a couple of shots of the stunted manchild who is the centre of attentive love at the heart of the family. The depiction of this manchild is central to the movie, the selflessness of the caring, the determination of the children never to let him go.   Mostly Ghobadi films the sequences with the manchild with economy and respect. But there are shots he uses that seem to be miscalculations. The manchild as part of the treatment for his condition, is on a course of painful intramuscular injections. For some reason Ghobadi decides to shoot him having these injections in close-up, so that we see his whole face and tiny body screaming trembling in pain. This close-up is surely unnecessary, a wide shot or even a cut away to one of the children watching whilst we hear his pain would have equally well if not better communicated the horror of the injection. But the shot as it is, a big close up of a manchild in pain, makes no sense and calls into question, even if momentarily, the integrity of the director. Why use this shot? You feel Kairostami would never shoot such a scene in this manner. The pain shot is overshadowed by the psychic pain embedded in the script of the rejection of the manchild by this society. Twice in the film he is cruelly rejected sent back home to die, by people who view him only as another burden. This is the sad reality realised in the script, that the love of the children in the family will not be enough to save the manchild from rejection. “Send him back! He’s another mouth to feed!” And given the harshness of the conditions experienced by this mountain society, this rejection is all too understandable.

    Shot in a mountainous border zone in Winter, the film is breathtaking in its depictions of the snowbound environment. An environment in which the people engage in a daily struggle to survive and to earn their bread. But for all that we wonder at the resilience and fortitude of these people, there is also the feeling that Ghobadi has embedded deep into the grain of the film his own sense of the absurd as a cosmic condition of life. The absurd as an existential condition. Even after these people have struggled against the pitiless nature of their snowbound environment, just at that point when they think they have overcome the obstacles of nature, they are then faced with the malicious antagonism of a human agency intent on destroying them.   Bandits or border patrols ambush them rendering their labours futile. Are these people not experiencing an absurd Sisyphean condition of life: that whatever you do however much you suffer, the outcome will be to throw you back where you started.

    The latent absurdity in TDH finally erupts intruding into the body of the film when the horses used to carry the contraband collapse to the ground unable to flee an ambush.    On these journey’s over the snowy mountains the horses’ water is normally doped with alcohol to help them combat the cold. On this journey they’d been overdosed with hooch and instead of being able to flee when the party is ambushed, inebriated and unsteady of their legs they are only able to collapse in a drunken stupour. In consequence instead of at least being able to escape with their goods, the smugglers lose everything. It’s a moment of pure farce conjured up by Ghobadi’s script, an absurdity that can be found only in extremis.

    There is a brittle quality to TDH.   Perhaps it is in the nature of the scenario: children coming to terms with taking on the impossible machinations of a complex and hard adult world, are doomed to fail. To his credit Ghobani doesn’t flinch from the logic of the cruelty that he presents to us.

    Ghobadi made his film 21 years ago, before the invasion of Iraq. Now everything will have changed but certainly life will still be as hard and brutal.

    adrin neatrour


  • The Small Town (Kasaba) Nuri Ceylan (Turk; 1997;)

    The Small Town (Kasaba) Nuri Ceylan (Turk; 1997;) Cihat Butun, Emin Ceylan; Mehmet Toprak


    viewed on Mubi 4th March 2021

    As light as a feather

    There are four things I remember about Ceylan’s ‘The Small Town’: the feather, the tortoise, the long night and the final shot in which Asiya’s tentatively lowers the fingers of her hand into the waters of the stream.

    What I finally understood about the film is that it is styled as a gentle satire, a satire that is as light as the feather that mesmerises the children in the classroom, and as captivating. Ceylan’s film satirises the state’s use of education as an opportunity for institutional indoctrination; satirises the family’s role in the inevitable victory of the adult over the child and its inability to stop the replication of the cycles of judgement through its generations. But although the satire is gentle the substance of the film centres on an inner psychic structure of emotional ambiguities and conflict, innocence and cruelty that describes within an 80 minute scenario a cycle of time that connects childhood to old age and death.

    Ceylan’s film observes interactions observes relations between both people and people and their environment.   ‘The Small Town’ is shot in a particular place and time, provincial Turkey in the late ‘1960s’.   But it uncovers something of what is universal in the experience of people, highlighted in the discontinuities and intensities of immanent life which is concentrated in its black and white photography that in particular during the long night sequence draws out the expressive qualities of the individual faces which are stamped like etchings on the film stock. Ceylan choosing to exploit the feature of texture rather than colourisation.

    The opening sequence establishes a theme that runs through the “The Small Town’ like a thread running through human nature: cruelty. The cruelty of the world of the child and the cruelty of the world of adults.   The cruelty of the child stems out of innocence, a disconnection between action and pain. In the opening shots, laughing and enjoying the spectacle of his discomfort, children cause the town’s simpleton to fall in the snow; later in the film, Ali hearing from his sister Asiya, that tortoises are helpless and die if turned and left upside down, does precisely this to the little creature they have been looking at. The act haunts him, as it haunted me after viewing the film. Ali is innocent in his actions in the sense that he has not yet come to realise how precious life is. There is no such excuse for adults. Nor do they seem to want any.

    The long sequence in which the family gather together during the night around the fire in a small grove gives voice to both individual cruelties and those endemic in the world that have shaped these people. This scene shot amidst the trees around the fire, closes in about the viewer evoking a feeling of intimacy and awareness with the participants. The camera draws in on not just the individual’s present, but also on the fire which claims a presence of its own, as do the immediate surround of tree and field. The family gathering with its hesitancies lacuna and discontinuities, is presented as a dialogue of men; but the women have presence. At critical moments it is the women who assert a dominance controling the ebb and flow of the talk, the what ‘can’ and the what ‘cannot’ be said. As the men talk the cruelty of war is related both as personal experience by grandad and then triumphantly glossed as a glorified history by his son brushing off the questioning of his nephew, Safet, as to the vainglory of it all.

    After the war talk, the conversation becomes more personal.   The life of Safet from the failed side of the family, becomes the focus of the family’s barbs of disappointment. Safet whose prematurely dead father was also the black sheep of the family suffers the cruelty of judgement. There is nothing good to say about either Safet or his dead father. Not that his father’s loss wasn’t deeply felt, but both father and son are cast as lost causes.  Cutting away from this night talk one of the memorable shots in the film sees Safet leaving home to join the army. Waved off by his grandmother he walks up a long road. The shot observes his progress away from everything he knows. He looks back once. It is a lonely shot that captures the lost boy nature of his spirit.

    Ceylan’s ability to conjure satire out of thin air is marked in the school and classroom sequence. At assembly the children listen to the reciting of the catechism of Turkish nationalism. Dismissed to the classroom they are subjected to more of the same as they are tasked by their teacher to read aloud in rote the solemn justifications for enforcing the rules of social and family solidarity. But as these rules of the game are intoned there is a feather at large in the room. A feather that has possibility. A feather that becomes an amusing entertaining game as the children by deft and targeted blowing attempt to keep it up in the air as long as possible.  Light as a feather it defeats single handed the didactic weight of the Turking state.

    The last shot stayed with me. It seems to be part of a dream sequence in which Asiya, standing by a stream sees the body of her grandfather lieing on the ground; she also spies Safet, close by, bare bodied without his shirt. The which shirt in the next shot she holds up wet and like a shroud, before kneeling down to tentatively dip her fingers into the flow of the stream where the film ends on a freeze frame of her hand in the waters. It is hesitant nature of her action that holds attention. I can’t say I know its significance, but it feels like a premonition of death foreseen.  The boyish vulnerability of the actor who played Safet caught my eye.   Later I looked up the career of Mehmet Toprak who played him and see he was killed in an automobile accident in Turkey 2002, just after completing Uzak, his second film for Ceylan.

    This was Ceylan’s first feature film. Watching it is an extraordinary experience.   ‘The Small Town’ is a film that opens up vistas on life and living, enveloping the viewer in an immediacy of seeing. Ceylan implies questions but supplies no slick outcomes or answers, just the opportunity to reflect. The film has nothing to do with the one thing after another mechanics of script or technicalities of film making as such.   The Small Town is simply an understanding of time and space, and how to communicate them.

    Caylan happens to be a film maker; at this stage of his career he is also a poet.

    adrin neatrour