INTERVIEW: The Things We Carry: Crossing Borders with "A Time For Drunken Horses" director Bahman Ghobadi
by Erin Torneo/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE/10.25.00) — Sitting beneath snowy watercolor prints in Soho’s The Cupping Room, Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi is a far cry from the harsh winterscapes of his native Kurdistan, which he captures unsparingly in his film “A Time For Drunken Horses.” The film, which received the Camera d’Or at Cannes and Special Jury Awards from both the Edinburgh and the Chicago International Film Festivals, is the first Kurdish film and has made quite an international impact with its haunting, powerful story of orphaned children fighting to survive on the Iran-Iraq border.
Despite the unavoidable political context and bloody history of its setting, “A Time for Drunken Horses” is not a political film. Rather, it is a small story about a family whose extraordinary hardships and extraordinary courage are part of the ordinary struggles of the Kurdish people living in that war zone. The main character, Ayoub, is a hard-working adolescent who hopes to raise money for an operation for Madi, his handicapped brother, by selling his mule across the border in Iraq. From the harsh climate to the sprawling mountains, the environment is so unforgiving that even the beasts of burden must be inebriated in order to smuggle goods across the treacherous border.
And we’ve our own barriers to cross, as indieWIRE’s Erin Torneo sits down with two translaters and a finnicky tape recorder to speak with Bahman Ghobadi about Iranian filmmaking, working with non-professional actors, and the things we carry.
The film opens nationwide on Friday, October 27 as part of the Shooting Gallery Film Series.
indieWIRE: How did you come to be a filmmaker?
Bahman Ghobadi: My experience started 12 years ago. I had no education in filmmaking. I started with a 8mm camera. I made 34 films, and little by little I gained more experience in filming. And then I went to Tehran, to the university, but that didn’t really teach me anything. I mostly learned everything through the 34 shorts that I made. But I wasn’t well off. For example, my landlords always wanted money for the rent, and in order to come up with a solution, I used them in my films, in order to keep them quiet. And I used my mother, my brothers, my sisters in my film; I used them as my assistants. I used real people in my films. In Kurdistan, there’s a lot of hardship — a lot of wars, a lot of bitter and difficult lifestyles. And witnessing all those made me a director.
iW: The film introduces an ethnic identity that is little known to a general population. I read somewhere that the Kurdish are the largest ethnic group without their own state. Was part of the motivation for making the film giving the Kurdish a “place,” a kind of home in the world, because “A Time for Drunken Horses” brings them under such an international spotlight?
Ghobadi: Yes, my movie is for the Kurdish people. There is about 30 million Kurdish people spread out by wars over the years to Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, although they originated in Iran. Only about 10-20,000 are involved with the fighting in Kurdistan. I’m not taking sides about the war between the people. I don’t like politics. That’s why I’m not a political filmmaker. I only want to make movies about my people, the reality of the Kurdish people, which is not about the wars, but a more positive truth. When I went back to Kurdistan, it was tremendous how people responded. People wanted to hold me up and treat me like a God. In Kurdistan, there has never been a movie made, there aren’t even any theaters — they just have some big rooms with a projector. In fact, people who played in the movie had never even seen one in their entire lives. They didn’t even have TVs. Because of this, they had the assumption that going to see a movie also means being in it! The impact was flabbergasting.
iW: Many audiences will see “A Time for Drunken Horses” without a complete sense of the political background or the ethnic history, but it is nonetheless appealing. Is your use of children in the lead roles because they de-politicize the issues and are more universally appealing?
Ghobadi: As much as I can, I try to stay away from politics, which is one reason why I use children. But the children were the subjects of this film. I fell in love with the idea of these characters that happen to be children.
iW: Thematically, you posit the idea of the drunken horses, these beasts of burden who must carry loads across the border, and there is a sense that the children, by the adult burdens they must carry, are not really children in a way, but made adults by the weight of their responsibilities.
Ghobadi: What you see is life in a border town that just recently came out of a 10-year war, and so it’s very common that a lot of these children are orphans, having lost one or both parents to the wars or to landmines. And it’s been going on for so long, and it’s so common, that in a way, it’s become a cultural identity, or a rite of passage of its own. For audiences, it may seem incredibly shocking, but for them, it’s a way of life, a matter of survival. There are other Kurds who are well off, who know a different way of life. But here on the border of Iran-Iraq, these children are the remnants of war, of conflict, often left parentless and without a choice but to survive. And so there is no childhood. One of the children in the film that sings in the truck, just two weeks ago, walked over a landmine and lost his leg. It’s so hard for me, it’s almost embarrassing to come here in nice clothes when I’ve worked with people who have never seen a banana or an orange or an airplane. It’s a reality check.
iW: How did the handicapped Madi become a part of the film?
Ghobadi: From a cinematic point of view, Madi is the pull. He drives the action. Without him, there is no story. Everyone is fighting for this child’s survival, more so than their own. When you see this film, and you see what these children will do just to extend Madi’s life for 5 or 6 months, it shows you what it really means to live. Because it’s not like they are going to save his life, they are only going to prolong it for a few months, and they would die to do it. And that it the truest thing this film says about the Kurdish people: their passion for life.
iW: What was it like working with non-actors? Did you improv scenes or rehearse with a script? Because the children’s performances are extraordinary.
Ghobadi: I only had one small piece of paper, with a few lines of script on it about how the Kurdish children lived. I took my camera to the bazaar in Kurdistan that you see in the opening, and there was so much there. It is so energized. You can go deep into any individual’s life there. And because I have worked with non-professional actors before, I could go after them and work with them more easily. At first, they were all intimidated and scared in front of the cameras, so I used hand signals and eye contact with the crew instead of shouting “Action!” or “Shoot!” so we could go through the process very naturally, of filming them and their stories. Though this movie was fictional, and I have a large imagination, the story is what really happens to the Kurdish. Maybe it didn’t happen to these children, but it has happened in other people’s lives. That is why it is fiction, but documentary-style. The first day I did a screen test with the actor who played Madi, I had him in front of the camera and he just sat there in shock. And the cameraman looked like he was holding a gun, because that is what they are used to seeing. So when I yelled, “Action!” he ran like they were going to shoot him. So I had to acclimate him to the camera. And when I directed him, I never stood by the camera. I was always somewhere else, so he wouldn’t look at the camera. And so the camera became like another prop in their house.
iW: How did you get them to emote within this story?
Ghobadi: The emotional responses are a process of empathy. I’ve lived it so I know how to work with them. I’m very emotional, and I have felt all of this in my heart, over the hardships of my own life, so I know what to seek. I was able to create a very familial environment, all the crew and cast lived together during the time of shooting, eating and living together. This created a level of comfort and family, which allowed for a lot of artistic freedom
iW: You and Hassan Yektapanah (“Djomeh”), also an Iranian director, were co-winners of the Camera d’Or at Cannes 2000. What was it like to win a prestigious award for your first feature and how will such international distinction for Iranian film carry over to your country when you return?
Ghobadi: I felt really excited and happy when I won that award, but I felt more pressure, because I want to do more. This award makes things harder for me, even though I was really excited when I first got it, because now everyone’s expectations are really high. The film has shown at every festival, people have praised it, but if they had criticized it, I would have had something to work on, to make better. But they’ve already said it was a great movie, and that makes me nervous. What will I have to come up with next?
iW: Good question. What is next?
Ghobadi: My next project will be in 2 months, with about 400 Iranian and Iraqi Kurdish women about music. And I hope that in a year, we’ll be sitting in this same place talking about that movie.
iW: And maybe by then I will speak some Kurdish.
[Erin Torneo is the Associate Editor of ifcRANT.]