The boy, Ayoub (Nezhad Ekhtiar-Dini), who appears to be about twelve, must take the reins of his family because his mother has died, his father has disappeared and his little brother Madi (Madi Ekhtiar-Dini), who is painfully crippled and getting worse, needs constant care. Ayoub has been wrapping glassware in newspaper at the local bazaar for small change and, sometimes, hiding exercise books under his clothes for a petty smuggler. The only thing he can do to make more money is hire himself out as a human beast of burden, carrying contraband goods over the treacherous mountain pass that separates his Iranian border village from Iraq. In near silence, Ghobadi has created some of the most arresting scenes I've ever seen on a movie screen: The sight of three dozen children trudging along the snowy trail with huge, child-dwarfing parcels strapped to their backs -- in convoy with mules bearing huge truck tires on their flanks. Lest they refuse their duties, the reeling mules have been plied with vodka. Children and animals alike are lucky if they don't step on a land mine or get ambushed by a militia.
In another culture, or in the hands of another sort of filmmaker, these might be the makings of manipulative soap opera or, at best, a surge of Dickensian regret over the fate of the poor. But thirty-year-old Ghobadi, whose own deprived childhood was interrupted by the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war, declines to sentimentalize the children's plight, or to tug too hard at the audience's heartstrings. Like the Italian neo-realist filmmakers of yore, he employs a cast of unself-conscious non-actors (many of them members of the same offscreen family), then lets the drama speak for itself with a minimum of artificially imposed emotion. He doesn't need any.
American moviegoers who saw an earlier Iranian export, 1995's The White Balloon, will likely recall that it turned on the slimmest of plots -- the quest of a little girl to buy a plump goldfish for her New Year's celebration. Horses is equally unadorned: An itinerant doctor who periodically examines little Madi warns that the boy needs surgery, and his worried siblings put all their frenzied efforts into helping out. Ayoub becomes a pint-sized packhorse. His younger sister, Amaneh (Amaneh Ekhtiar-Dini), who is the film's touching narrator, tries to keep their hut in order. And the older sister, Rojin (Rojin Younessi), agrees to an arranged marriage with an Iraqi Kurd, based on the promise that her new in-laws will help pay for Madi's operation. A wind-whipped meeting between the two tattered families, at which the bargain goes wrong, is another of the film's indelible scenes. In the midst of it, we behold tiny Madi, his crooked legs stuffed into a pouch, lashed to the ribcage of a huffing mule, like any other piece of cargo.
Ghobadi's passage into feature-length films was scarcely less harsh. After studying, and apprenticing to the great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, he made several short films; but he managed to finance Horses only after selling his family's possessions and imposing on relatives and friends to do the same. He spent two winters shooting and reshooting in his native Kurdistan, and the result is a minor masterpiece (at least) that earned him the prestigious Camera d'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival. Like many Iranian films, it is ostensibly about children -- dispossessed and desolate children -- not only because children compose a huge proportion of the Iranian and Iraqi citizenry, but because "children's films" more easily pass strict Iranian censorship codes, which prohibit so much as a chaste kiss between a man and a woman, or the sight of a wife's uncovered head. Still, from the mouths of babes . . .
Without flinching, Horses examines the courage and selflessness of kids trying to survive under the most trying circumstances, and, by extension, it comments on the plight of the Kurds themselves -- as long as you can read between the lines. Known as the largest ethnic group in the world without a homeland, 20 million Kurds, most of them Sunni Muslims, are spread throughout parts of Turkey (where, until recently, they were not even allowed to identify themselves as Kurds), Iraq (where Saddam Hussein routinely murdered them until relaxing his sanctions), Syria (where their rights are limited) and Iran (where they subsist as a minority in a Shi'ite-controlled theocracy). Ghobadi, who may be the only Kurdish film director, says he made Horses "as a humble tribute to my cultural heritage" and hopes it will help dramatize the agonies of his people. "The Kurds you see in this film," he writes, "are not figments of my imagination. They represent real people, whose brave struggle for survival I have personally witnessed."
It's difficult to imagine a more eloquent tribute.