A filmmaker whose work confounds boundaries, Bahman Ghobadi was born in a Kurdish village on the Iran-Iraq border and has taken that situation as the basis for his cinema. Ghobadi, celebrated this week in a MOMA retro, shared the Caméra d’Or at Cannes for his first feature, the harrowing quasi-doc A Time for Drunken Horses (2001), in which a band of stoical children, saddled with adult responsibilities, competes for menial jobs in the village marketplace or, more arduously, serves as smugglers transporting contraband goods across the Iraqi border.
Also set on the Iran-Iraq frontier—this time in the gruesome aftermath of the first Gulf War—Ghobadi’s follow-up, the music-fueled road movie Marooned in Iraq, opens like an Upper Slobovian parody of Easy Rider. Leaning forward on his motorcycle, a mustachioed, middle-aged hipster in green plastic goggles motivates through the craggy mountains, towed by a ramshackle tractor—the boom box blasting and Saddam’s jets streaking overhead. The itinerant principals are all locally famous musicians constantly called upon—and sometimes compelled by other characters—to entertain. Their wildly rhythmic numbers typically inspire spontaneous chorus lines and madcap dancing. This lusty, heartfelt movie has a near-Bruegelian visual energy and a humanist passion as contagious as its music.
Ghobadi synthesized his first feature’s neo- realist pathos with his second one’s Dogpatch fabulism in Turtles Can Fly (2004), set in a Kurdish refugee camp on the Turkish-Iraqi border on the eve of the U.S. invasion. The protagonist is a brash pre-teen hustler who salvages military detritus and specializes in installing satellite dishes. Ghobadi’s most recent film, Half Moon, is another magical mystery tour through his mountainous homeland— populated by a small army of cute urchins, irascible wives, and garrulously self-important old goats. One of the latter, a renowned Kurdish musician named Mamo, visits a village where 1,334 women singers have been exiled and attempts to smuggle one into Iraq for a concert. The music is terrific; here as in his previous features, the ethno-funkiness brings Ghobadi close to such folk-cinema maestros as Alexandr Dovzhenko and Sergei Parajanov.
In addition to Ghobadi’s four features, the retro includes two featurettes and War Is Over (2003), a documentary made in Iraq several weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The Films of Bahman Ghobadi, June 27 through July 7, MOMA.