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.