In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Among them were some half a dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads,
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.

– Edwin Muir, The Horses

Asbe du-pa (Two-Legged Horse, 2008) is Samira Makhmalbaf’s fourth film, and like her previous entries, it examines some uncomfortable symptoms of the human condition. By far her most upsetting work, this film observes the sadistic relationship between two boys affected by the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. The script was penned by her well-regarded father, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, though it is a mistake to simply regard Samira Makhmalbaf as a mere product of her father’s influence. Though he has doubtlessly inspired her – she credits him with her burgeoning love of cinema as an eight-year-old starring in his film Bicycleran (The Cyclist, 1987)1 – Makhmalbaf is incredibly talented in her own right. Indeed, when she created her first film, Sib (The Apple, 1998) at the astonishing age of 17, some critics suspected it was actually directed by her father.2 Yet despite such attempts to discredit her work, Makhmalbaf’s voice as an auteur is too powerful and singular to overlook, and it is a mistake to conflate her talent with that of her father’s.

Two-Legged Horse makes “cruel” feel like too kind a word. Shot in Afghanistan with mostly non-actors, it observes a poor boy, Guiah (Ziya Mirza Mohamad) with an apparent cognitive disability, who works as a “two-legged horse” to carry a rich, legless boy (Haron Ahad) to school on his back for one dollar a day. At the film’s opening, we see Guiah scramble out of a decrepit dirt bunker with other poor boys as they all fight to be chosen as the human-horse. The rich boy – only ever referred to by Guiah as “Master” – selects Guiah because he is tall and strong, and perhaps his simple-minded nature also makes him well-suited to the task. The scene feels reminiscent of a farmer’s market, but here it is people who are being sold instead.

Guiah is an incredibly willing horse, pushing himself physically in order to make his master happy. He carries him constantly, but also bathes him, races other boys on donkeys, and fights for him in street fights with other children. It is heartbreaking to watch Guiah frequently collapse from exhaustion and malnourishment, and his only reward is to be frequently beaten, abused, tricked and punished by his sadistic boy-master. It is here that Makhmalbaf is wonderfully deceitful, for at first we might be led to believe that this is a redemption tale. After all, the two boys seem to grow close, and despite a divide in class and economic status, they are somewhat equals: Guiah is simple-minded, but physically strong and capable while Master is privileged, but physically impaired and helpless. Both are children of a war-torn country whose lives are made harsh by necessity, and they seem to find a kinship in each other. After a disagreement, Guiah begs to be allowed to be a horse, and Master seems to always be in need of Guiah for both physical and emotional support. 

However, this is not a film about redemption. Their relationship grows not in closeness, but in sadism. As the film progresses, Master’s treatment of Guiah only worsens. He is forced to become more and more animal-like, and endure increasing pain at the very limits of tolerance. This is a film about the capacity of children to be cruel to each other, about the question of humanity in the most desperate of conditions, about being born good or evil, and the dehumanisation of the poor and the kind. Makhmalbaf is sharply critical of class exploitation, while exploring the roots of empathy among those who have been broken by war. Many parallels are drawn between people and animals; we watch as a foal is born and harshly pushed onto its legs by its mother in a tough but necessary act of nurturing. But when Master does the same to a collapsed horse-boy, the action is devoid of love. By contrasting boys with horses, Makhmalbaf outlines the critical differences in circumstance; highlighting that we are not, in fact, as merciful as the beast.

Two-Legged Horse is a wonderfully enigmatic work, shot beautifully on film and strung together like a pastiche of brutality. It is perhaps not intentionally abstract: filming was interrupted at one point by a grenade that was lobbed as an act of terrorism during filming,3 and Makhmalbaf struggled to complete the film as a result. The final film nevertheless feels complete as an observation of the ugliest parts of humanity, both sickening and beautiful. In Makhmalbaf’s words: 

I want to soothe human pains and sufferings by my films. I believe many of these sufferings stem from human thinking. We are what we think. Cinema can change thoughts. That’s why I am in cinema. This is the human and social aspect of the subject. But it does have a personal dimension too. I think life is void and everyone fills it in their own way. I do it with cinema. This is the only amusing doll remaining for me from my childhood.4

Asbe du-pa/Two-Legged Horse (2008 Afghanistan/Iran/France 101 min)

Prod Co: Wild Bunch Distribution Prod: Maysam Makhmalbaf, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Samira Makhmalbaf, Mehrdad Zonnour Dir: Samira Makhmalbaf Scr: Mohsen Makhmalbaf Phot: Farzad Jadat Ed: Mohsen Makhmalbaf Mus: Tolibhon Shakhidi

Cast: Ziya Mirza Mohamad, Haron Ahad, Gol-Ghotai (as Gol Ghotai Karimi), Khojeh Nader, Yasin Tavildar


  1. Vito Robbiani, “Samira Makhmalbaf, as I love my father I love cinema too,” YouTube (14 March 2018): https://youtu.be/oqmbRHddYU0?si=MYh5eOAYLPjLr6hI.
  2. Charlotte O’Sullivan, Lights, Camera, Action, Birth Certificate…,The Guardian, December 13, 1998.
  3. ‘Cinema, My Last Childhood Doll,’” Makhmalbaf Film House, June 2, 2007.
  4. Ibid.

About The Author

Faith Everard is an independent film scholar and former radio producer from Melbourne. She has a deep passion for cinema old and new.

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