The Other Half
If you’re reading this, it’s a sure bet that you’re one of the lucky ones, that you live the best kind of life human civilization has to offer. We are busy and comfortable — we shop in overflowing supermarkets and are presented with endless opportunities for entertainment, and our biggest worries are the turnings of the stock market. It’s easy for us to forget that billions of people on this planet still live at subsistence level, have never used a telephone, and see the women around them regularly die in childbirth. Oh, we all probably had our mothers implore us to think of all the children starving in China or Africa who’d love to have those brussels sprouts, but those harsh and brutal lives aren’t really anything we think about… until we’re face to face with the reality of those lives, as we are in the startling and heartbreaking A Time for Drunken Horses.
Bahman Ghobadi is an Iranian Kurdish filmmaker — the only Kurdish filmmaker — whose short films have been set among his people, a disenfranchised ethnic minority in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. Horses, his first feature film, is fictional, but the characters and events are based in fact. Ghobadi hopes to promote awareness of his cultural heritage and the lives of his people, and he succeeds stunningly — this is a haunting film, performed by an extraordinary nonprofessional cast, about hardscrabble life at the outermost fringes of civilization.
The snowy, mountainous Iranian border with Iraq is a desolate place. Living conditions are barely more than medieval, yet Kurdish villages cling to a kind of life, enduring by smuggling goods back and forth across the border. Ayoub (Ayoub Ahmadi), all of perhaps 13, is the man of his family. His mother is dead, his smuggler father is far away, and the eldest brother, Madi (Mehdi Ekhtiar-dini) is handicapped, mentally and physically — retarded, with tiny, bent legs and a stunted body, Madi is like a toddler in both size and mind. So Ayoub, and sometimes little sister Ameneh (Ameneh Ekhtiar-dini), scurry for odd jobs in a nearby small town while eldest sister Rojin (Rojin Younessi) watches after the baby. They are surviving, but only just. But when the local doctor tells Ayoub that Madi, whose condition will kill him soon, needs an operation to extend his life a few months, Ayoub is determined to earn the money for the surgery. He begins working with the local smugglers, borrowing his uncle’s mule to ferry goods over the mountains into Iraq.
The film’s title is not metaphoric: The smugglers feed their mules alcohol to keep them warm in the wintry weather and tractable when distant gunshots herald ambushes by pirates. Mule stubbornness seems more like mule common sense — only an idiot would deliberately risk walking in ambushes as the smugglers do, and ask their pack animals to do — though their masters’ only excuse for such behavior is a good one. Smuggling is all they have, no matter the dangers it entails, and Ayoub’s story ends on a realistically somber note: This is all he will ever have. His life will be spent willingly walking across literal and figurative minefields for lack of another choice.
Frequently using a handheld camera to lend a documentary air to the film, Ghobadi unsentimentally show us these hardbitten, world-weary kids who are children in age only, yet he doesn’t ask for pity. Though their face are sad and too grown-up, they are quite happy when they sing “Life is aging me / Bringing me closer to death.” And they are not hard with one another: Ayoub and his siblings are extremely close, and it is their love for one another that ultimately tears them apart. Madi is treated with brusque kindness by their entire village, and, poignantly, he owns the single cheery piece of clothing the family seems to own: a bright yellow rain slicker. It may be poor protection from the cold, but the same can be said for everyone’s wardrobe, which isn’t nearly as colorful as Madi’s jacket.
Still, the moments that haunt me the most are the reminders that Ayoub and Madi and their family live in the same world that you and I do, though it may not seem that way to any of us. In school the younger children read about “gigantic airplanes” that fly people around the globe. Such things must seem like a fantasy far removed from their reality. Discomfortingly, it’s not so easy for us to dismiss their realm as fantasy.