‘Bearing Witness: The Films of Bahman Ghobadi’ at Walter Reade


The planet’s lone major Kurdish filmmaker, Bahman Ghobadi is also the most satirical and least self-conscious of the big Iranian New Wave voices, which is probably why in 10 years all five of his features have found American release. (In roughly the same span, contemporaries Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abba Kiarostami have virtually disappeared, their few films rarely seen.) But don’t take this to mean that Ghobadi is a lightweight; his films, showing this week at the Walter Reade Theater as his latest opens, bristle with appalling realism and grim truth from one of the world’s most troubled landscapes. Among film artists of state-less nations—now there’s an idea for a retrospective—Ghobadi may be preeminent because his films are both accessible and uncompromising.

Without the sardonic humor of his films yet to come, A Time of Drunken Horses (2000), threw down the gauntlet for the director’s merciless sense of trial. In ultra-realist fashion his camera follows a family of orphaned siblings high in the snowy peaks of the Zagros foothills as they try everything from smuggling to selling themselves to raise money to save a sickly dwarf brother. Thanks to Sharia law’s restrictions on the portrayal of women, and a debt to Italian neo-realism, Iranian movies have always been thick with juvenile tribulation, but Ghobadi’s debut escalates the trials to a Biblical level, and maintains a formidable documentary integrity.

Marooned in Iraq (2002) set Ghobadi’s tone for the future: hardscrabble, detour-friendly and ironic, the film launched a comic road trip along the Iraq-Iran border during Saddam’s post-Gulf War assaults on the Kurds, and tempered the battle-harrowed terrain with musical energy and outright shtick. The rather Kiarostamian wandering served to capture grand swaths of Kurdish life, heretofore unfilmed, but it was Turtles Can Fly (2004) that is close to being visionary. Flush with the heat of experience, Ghobadi set his third film almost entirely in a Kurdish refugee camp where industry had been reduced to finding and selling live land mines, a labor performed entirely by war orphans with missing limbs. The next war literally looms—satellite dishes are frantically brokered and an armless prophet wanders the minefields, vexed by trauma.

Finishing the war triptych, the poorly distributed Half Moon (2006) conjures another border-cross roadtrip as Ghobadi sends a willful busload of musicians into Iraq after the fall of Saddam. There they perform legally for the first time in decades and confront a culture still reeling from combat confusion. It’s a musical and a metaphysical fable, among other things, and deserves a reappraisal.