The boy, Ayoub (Ayoub Ahmadi), who appears to be about 12, must take the reins of his family because his mother has died, his father has disappeared and his little brother, Mehdi (Mehdi Ekhtiar-dini), painfully crippled, is getting worse and needs constant care. Ayoub has been wrapping glassware in newspaper at the local bazaar for small change and hiding books under his clothes for a petty smuggler. The only thing he can do to make more money is hire himself out as a beast of burden, carrying contraband goods over the treacherous mountain pass that separates his Iranian border village from Iraq. Ghobadi has created some of the most arresting scenes ever shown onscreen: Imagine three dozen children trudging the snowy trail with giant parcels strapped to their backs -- in convoy with mules bearing huge truck tires. 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 filmmaker, these might be the makings of soap opera or, at best, a surge of Dickensian regret over the fate of the poor. But 30-year-old Ghobadi, whose own deprived childhood was interrupted by the Iran-Iraq war, declines to sentimentalize the children's plight or to tug too hard at the heartstrings. He employs a cast of unselfconscious nonactors, then lets the drama speak for itself with a minimum of artificially imposed emotion. He doesn't need any.
Moviegoers who saw the 1995 Iranian export 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 Mehdi warns that the boy needs surgery -- which may keep him alive only a few months -- and his worried siblings put their frenzied efforts into helping out. Ayoub becomes a pint-sized packhorse. His younger sister, Amaneh (Amaneh Ekhtiar-dini), the film's touching narrator, tries to keep their hut in order. Older sister Rojin (Rojin Younessi) agrees to an arranged marriage with an Iraqi Kurd on the promise that her new in-laws will help pay for Mehdi's operation. A wind-whipped meeting between the tattered families, at which the bargain goes wrong, is another of the film's indelible scenes. In the midst of it, we behold tiny Mehdi, 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 apprenticing with the great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, Ghobadi made several short films but managed to finance Horses only after selling his possessions and imposing on relatives and friends to do the same. He spent two winters shooting in his native Kurdistan, and the result is a minor masterpiece that earned him the Camera d'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival. Like many Iranian films, it is ostensibly about children -- not only because children are a huge proportion of the Iranian and Iraqi citizenry but because "children's films" more easily pass strict Iranian censorship codes, which prohibit even 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 in the most trying circumstances; by extension, it comments on the plight of the Kurds themselves -- if you read between the lines. Known as the largest ethnic group in the world without a homeland, 20 million Kurds -- mostly Sunni Muslims -- are spread throughout Turkey (where, until recently, they were not even allowed to identify themselves as Kurds), Iraq (where Saddam Hussein routinely murdered them until relaxing sanctions), Syria (where their rights are limited) and Iran (where they subsist as a minority in a Shi'ite theocracy). Ghobadi says he made Horses "as a humble tribute to my cultural heritage," hoping 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.