TURTLES CAN FLY (Bahman Ghobadi, 2004)

Children in a time of war: Turtles Can FlyLakposhtha hâm parvaz mikonand—takes on a great theme, with mixed results. The film is by writer-director Bahman Ghobadi, an Iranian Kurd, who made A Time for Drunken Horses (Zamani barayé masti asbha, 2000) and Marooned in Iraq (Gomgashtei dar Aragh, 2002), the first film to be shown in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion, which I have described as “one of the most dazzlingly brilliant films I have seen about the impact of war on civilian populations,” “a comedy, robust, energetic and humane, in the great tradition of ‘road films,’ that veers seamlessly into a depiction of war’s horror and attendant grief.” Taking place both shortly before and following the U.S. invasion in search of non-existent “weapons of mass destruction,” Turtles Can Fly is the first film to be made in Iraq post-Saddam Hussein. While not quite as rich or wonderful as Marooned in Iraq, it has its poignant and powerful moments. It is also, on occasion, pleading, nagging.

The film is set in the mountains in Kurdistan, Iraq, on the Turkish border. It portrays a makeshift camp of Kurdish children—orphans, refugees, children either entirely or largely on their own: a world within a world within a world, but a place unprotected from the chaos of war that the American invasion will inflict. Many of these children risk mutilation and death by hunting for unexploded devices in order to sell them to the resident U.N. representative. Some of them have already lost limbs in a terrain inundated with mines—a legacy of Saddam’s wars against Kurds and Turks, but mines, the film parenthetically notes, manufactured in the U.S. We watch one child—Hengov, who is known as The Boy with No Arms—defuse a mine by carefully pulling out the firing pin with his lips and teeth. The most suspenseful glimpse of child labor imaginable, this moment suggests the poise and effort required of all children there simply to survive.

Hengov heads a family that includes his sister, Agrin, and three-year-old Rega, who is blind—Agrin’s son, we find out, from her having been raped when she was about ten by an Iraqi soldier. Traumatized by the rape, Agrin is a joyless child, without affect, who hates her son. (She reminds me a little of Bresson’s Mouchette.) The film opens with a haunting shot of her suicide—a water’s-eye view of her plunge from a cliff; but we have no way of knowing at that point whether the shot records Agrin’s action or merely her wish for her suffering to end. Throughout the film, she returns to the precipice in contemplation of suicide. This strain of the narrative ends worst of all for Hengov, who loves both his sister and his half-brother/surrogate son, and works wrenchingly hard to keep the family intact. A protracted scene of Rega’s oblivious endangerment in a field full of mines as another boy attempts to rescue the playful toddler is over the top for me. Ghobadi’s employment here of sentimental reaction shots of the onlooking crowd of children, especially of Hengov, who begs to rescue Rega himself, is Spielbergian. This lapse in judgment and tact, while certainly the worst, is regrettably by no means unique in the film.

Rega’s would-be rescuer, thirteen-year-old Soren, goes by the nickname Satellite. An expert in electronics, he is the children’s bespectacled leader. Life goes on even in the dire circumstances that the film portrays, and Satellite, smitten with her, romantically pursues Agrin.

Turtles Can Fly is not overtly political; rather, it is humanistic. But the elements I like best in it reflect on political realities, such as when the U.S. tries to prepare people for the bombing campaign about to follow by dropping leaflets from helicopters that announce the following: “We will make this country a paradise. We will take away your problems. We are the best in the world.” Meanwhile, terrified, refugees are pretending to be trees to be spared bombardment—a beautifully inverted allusion to Akira Kurosawa’s Macbeth film (Kumo-no su-jō, 1957).

By turns, Ghobadi’s film suggests the novel Oliver Twist, Kurosawa’s (no matter what Donald Richie thinks) brilliant Dodesukaden (1970), and films by Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien. Ghobadi’s graceful, intricate long shots, including those of crowds, recall Hou’s marvelous The Puppetmaster (1993), and they also suggest the influence of Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami, whose assistant Ghobadi once was. These shots provide a magnificent sense of beseiged and tragic humanity. The children thus become a metaphor for all Kurds, young and old, and, ultimately, for us all.

Ghobadi draws good performances from his nonprofessional young cast. However imperfect Turtles Can Fly may be, it is the work of a humane (and, at 36, still young) artist. Ghobadi: “I mean to make films my own way. I’m inspired by my country’s culture. This is something that comes from within. I’m passionate about suffering and pain. I make films because I’d like to be able to share in my own people’s suffering. I feel suffused with energy when I’m by their side.”

The meaning of the title? “Alas, human beings cannot fly. They cannot escape the devastation of war that some nations and peoples are determined to unload upon them.” The point, of course, is sharpened by irony, for turtles in reality also cannot fly; but the dream persists that someday wars will end for good and children will have the peaceful childhoods that are their entitlement. How likely is this? It will happen when turtles can fly. Humans must evolve into something better than they are for war to be wiped off the map of human activity. This may never happen.

Turtles Can Fly won as best film at San Sebastián.

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