'Black Horse Memories': Busan Review

Black Horse Memories Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Busan International Film Festival

A challenging and only partially successful look at cultural resistance.

Writer-director Shahram Alidi takes an innovative approach to a story of identity, oppression and memory in this New Currents competition entry.

Zigzagging wildly between affecting social drama and ludicrous affected artiness, Shahram Alidi’s New Currents entry Black Horse Memories is, at its best, unique and creative in its storytelling and, at its worst, highhanded nonsense. Poignant, politically charged and pretentious all at the same time and toggling between any of the three from one moment to the next, the Iranian/Turkish co-production tosses in elements of suspense, tragedy and something very close to magical realism. Centered on a group of activist friends taking a fallen comrade’s body home to her family, Black Horse Memories is a subjective experience that will move viewers with its novel approach as easily as it will elicit inappropriate giggles from others. This is purely festival fare in any jurisdiction, but should garner a respectable amount of interest for its timely subject matter and that very same novelty.

Stagey from its very first minutes detailing what at first appears to be a drowning followed by a group of twentysomethings shiftily winding their way through a small Turkish town clearly on a mission of some sort, the film revolves around five friends on a quest to honor the last will of a sixth, who died for the cause. There’s lots of undefined talk of “comrades” and picking up pre-arranged cars and one of them going to pick up a mysterious item. It puts viewers on the defensive; they certainly seem threatening. As it turns out they’re cultural freedom fighters, Kurds defiantly—and illegally—continuing to teach Kurdish language and culture in a place where it’s been suppressed and banned.

At the heart of the group’s quest is Zerya (Berrak Tuzunatac), who’s headed off to an Anatolian mountain village to retrieve the horse, Mandana, which the dead woman, Aaseke (Dimen Zandi), grew up with. While she does that, Anahita (Senay Aydin), Elias (Aziz Capkurt), Khezr (Bilal Bulut) and Vian (Vildan Atasever) work to prepare for a recitation of an epic Kurdish poem she never heard the end of, beginning with retrieving her body from a well they had to hide her in after she was shot.

Black Horse Memoriesfrequently feels like a first feature (it’s not), a condition that can be blamed on some baffling expository dialogue (“Let’s park the car in a good place so we can get away fast.”) and an occasionally righteous and holy tone. When Zerya comes across a nurse (Sheval Sam) caring for orphans in a desert triage hospital she actually tells her, “Your duty is sacred.” A bit on the nose. Alidi inserts a questionable meta use of his own film as part of the plot and many sequences go on too long, neutering their power and leaving the impression Black Horse Memories would make a better short film. 

On the other hand, Alidi isn’t afraid to mix things up, and here it’s largely manifested in Mandana’s active participation in recalling Aaseke’s past as well as reflecting on the persecution of Kurds in Turkey and their forced subjugation to Turkish language and law. Zerya and company’s efforts to teach Kurdish to Kurds—with clandestine classes, printing subterfuge and underground schools—is intricately tied to the larger issues Alidi references, like the chemical attack in Kobani. Many of the atrocities of the past are seen through Mandana’s eyes, and we are shown her own painful memories. It’s an unconventional creative choice, but not unexpected given the vaguely surreal tone of Alidi’s debut, Whisper with the Wind. However, as with that film, it’s only sometimes effective and is compensated for with an evocative use of sound (by Hossein Mahdavis).

The lead performances are adequate if not actively vivid (the horse of often more engaging) and technical specs are uniformly strong in a film that relies on its audio and video.

Production company: Drishyam Films, Da Vinci Film Production           

Cast: Berrak Tuzunatac, Dimen Zandi, Senay Aydin, Vildan Atasever, Aziz Capkurt, Bilal Bulut, Maryam Bobani, Tara Jaff, Sheval Sam

Director: Shahram Alidi

Screenwriter: Shahram Alidi

Producer: Shahram Alidi

Executive producer: Ro Oguz

Director of photography: Ashkan Ashkani

Production designer: Shahram Alidi

Costume designer: Shahram Alidi

Editor: Hayedeh Safiyari

Music: Kayhan Kalhor

World sales: Dreamlab Films


No rating, 88 minutes