Depicting Kurd's Misery With Tough Lyricism - "Turtles Can Fly" Review
By A.O. Scott The New York Times
"Turtles Can Fly" is the third feature film that Bahman Ghobadi, a Kurdish director from Iran, has made about the suffering and resilience of his people, who have the bad luck to live spread across the often volatile borders of several nation-states, including Turkey and Iraq.
While the status of the Kurdish nation remains perilous, Mr. Ghobadi has set out to give the Kurds a national cinema, and to bring their traditions and their language, as well as their troubles, to the attention of global audiences.
His new film arrives garlanded with awards from international film festivals. Like its predecessors - "A Time for Drunken Horses" and "Marooned in Iraq" (also known as "Songs of My Motherland") - it presents a harsh account of war, displacement and deprivation that is saved from utter bleakness by a tough, earthy lyricism. Like many other Iranian filmmakers, Mr. Ghobadi often uses children in his movies, for their guilelessness and vulnerability, and also because they are scrappy, stubborn and naturally funny. Adults are fairly peripheral in the world of "Turtles Can Fly," which is set in a mountainside village in Iraq that incorporates a swelling refugee camp. The time is early 2003, and the villagers wait, with a mixture of hope and trepidation, for the Second Gulf War to begin, and try to find news of its arrival. The chronology makes it a kind of sequel to "Marooned in Iraq," which took place just after the Persian Gulf war of 1991, when Saddam Hussein attacked the Kurds after his defeat by the American-led coalition. The war-weary Kurds in this film, foreseeing the end of Mr. Hussein's rule, also worry the American invasion will bring a new round of violence.
Mr. Ghobadi filmed "Turtles" in Iraqi Kurdistan shortly after the end of major combat was declared, and he appears agnostic about whether the American intervention will improve daily life. Daily life, in any case, interests him more than politics, and his camera pushes through scenes of bustle and confusion, looking for moments of clarity. The people in the film, meanwhile, are impatiently searching for information. Among the first images we see is a hallucinatory vista of makeshift antennas propped up in a field, like lightning rods or windmills. Atop one of them is a lanky, nerdy boy, with oversize glasses and a backward baseball cap, whose nickname is Satellite (Soran Ebrahim). He is the village's main source of technical know-how, and later he lives up to his name by acquiring a dish that allows the local elders to peruse "prohibited channels" full of music videos before settling on Fox News, which Satellite pretends to translate for them. He serves as the de facto mayor of the local children, many of them orphans, who gather spent artillery shells and defused land mines to sell in the nearby town. Satellite's best friend has been maimed by a mine, as has Satellite's new rival, a boy who has lost his arms and who shows up one day with his sister and a baby whose parentage is mysterious.
The hardships these children have faced are horrifying, and Mr. Ghobadi neither sweetens nor sensationalizes them, which makes "Turtles Can Fly" all the more painful to watch. It is a heartbreaking film, and cruelty sometimes seems to be not only its subject but its method. Like the child on a high cliff that is one of its recurring images, the film walks up to the edge of hopelessness and pauses there, waiting to see what happens next.
Originally Published February 18, 2005
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