25 August 2001 | Philby-3
Some real family values in a stark landscape
Kurdistan isn't in your atlas, but it exists, the land of a people ignored by the post-Ottoman empire boundary makers and now living in eastern Turkey, northern Iraq and north-western Iran. This movie is set in a mountainous part of the Iraq-Iran border where the local Kurds eke out a living smuggling tea and tractor tyres by mule train from Iran into Iraq. (The return cargo seems to be school exercise books what the mullahs of Iran have got against those I cannot imagine). No doubt they (the Iranian Kurds) are not on President Bush's Christmas card list, but their main customers are likely to be Kurds on the Iraqi side. The main problem though is not the authorities but bandits, eager to knock off the smuggler's loads.
The hero here is 12 year old Ayoub, who has to follow in his father's footsteps after the death of his father on a smuggling trip. As Dad stepped on a landmine this is a dangerous undertaking but Ayoub is determined to earn enough money for a operation to prolong the life (if only for a few months) of his severely crippled and retarded older brother. This sounds like blatant melodramatic manipulation, and it is, but it works.
Why does it work? There's the cinemaphotography, so perfectly lit and composed you might as well be standing there. There is excellent use of hand-held cameras, especially on the trail sequences. None of the actors is professional and the whole thing has a documentary air. Above all, the emotional bonds between the characters ring true. Perhaps when you have next to nothing your family becomes all-important, though the kinship bonds here seen to weaken quickly outside the immediate family circle. Kurdistan is a tough place and people are hard, and there's not much community support for the weak and frail. The young are expected to shape up fast, or fall by the wayside. As for the horses, well, animal rights activists would be run out of town.
Yet there is a stark beauty about the film that makes it hard to dismiss the slow pace grows on you. Ayoub may be going to grow up as just another tough, ignorant, sexist tribesman, but we glimpse here (he is going to school) that he might do better. This is a remarkable and different film and a very good antidote to the recent stream of romantic comedies.