When 30-year-old Bahman Ghobadi came to Toronto this fall to promote his award-winning film about Kurdish-refugee street children, you might have expected him to throw more fuel on the fire.
Is A Time For Drunken Horses a political film? Not at all, says Ghobadi, through a translator. "Politics bore me, which is why I don't really care to talk about politics."
The handsome Ghobadi is also an actor, who has played parts in two other Iranian films about the Kurdish minority: Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us and Samira Makhmalbaf's Blackboards.
That means that Ghobadi has worked with the two major figures in contemporary Iranian film, but he makes it clear that he's his own man. "If I repeat what they've done, nothing goes forward."
He acknowledges Iranian film's debt to Italian neo-realism -- the use of natural light, real-life settings and untrained actors -- but says: "That was a long time ago now and I think that Italian neo-realism and the French New Wave mattered to the last couple of generations of Iranian directors, though less so to me." His own push is toward a greater sense of documentary realism, embellished with moments of explosive hyper-reality, as in the climax of A Time of Drunken Horses -- Iran's official Oscar submission for the year 2000.
Unlike other Iranian directors who complain about censors, Ghobadi says: "Iran's the easiest country in the world to get a film made today. For the past five years, it hasn't been that difficult. You have to avoid sex and violence and direct government criticism, but that just makes the films more creative."
Ghobadi had made nine short films, and already had a strong reputation before he started his first feature. To make A Time of Drunken Horses, he turned his family into a production company. His brother was production manager; his sister scouted locations and made peace on the sets; and his mother cooked meals and prayed for good weather.
It was, in a sense, a homecoming experience. His own life "was tough until I was about 16." When the Iran-Iraq war broke out in 1980, his home region was heavily bombed and many of his relatives were killed. As a boy, he was forced to work to help feed his family. From that experience, he found the stories that inspired his film.
The drunken horses of the title, he says, are a real phenomenon. Mules, forced to carry heavy loads in a cold, rough terrain, are given alcohol to anesthetize them.
"Let me ask a question," he says. "Did you ever doubt that what you saw was real?" Assured there was no doubt, he smiles with satisfaction. "Then I've done my job," he says.