The Relentlessly Grim Turtles Can Fly Will Ruin Your Day, But It Probably Should
There is nothing more important to 13-year-old Satellite (Soran Ebrahim) than television. But it’s not hip-hop videos or the latest episode of Viva la Bam! that matters to him—though if he knew such things existed and he were allowed to watch them, he’d surely be fascinated. TV matters to him because it’s the spring of 2003 and he lives in a Kurdish refugee camp in northern Iraq, just on the other side of the barbed wire from the hostile Turkish border. The United States is weeks, maybe days, away from attacking Saddam Hussein’s regime, and every Kurd in the camp, from the ragamuffin orphans who swarm the place to the graybeards fingering their prayer beads, wants the latest news. Plus Satellite’s status as the local junior fixer is tied up in his ad hoc cable-guy knowledge of how to rig up a dish—hence the nickname—and call down news from the heavens about faraway decisions and events that may have far-reaching implications on the ground for every resident of the scabby tent city.
As the Iraq War dims into an ill-defined dusty murmur in many Western minds, the mud-level view of geopolitical fallout that Iranian Kurdish writer/director Bahman Ghobadi provides in Turtles Can Fly makes it most timely viewing. But Ghobadi (A Time for Drunken Horses) doesn’t settle for mere current-events polemics. By focusing his lens on Satellite and his young peers in the camp, he illuminates the brutal realities of a generation shaped—cruelly, in many cases—by struggles between far-off governments, and crafts a heart-piercing reminder that everywhere the news is bad there are children, and whatever future is left to them, trapped underneath it.
Working on location in northern Iraq with an amateur cast, Ghobadi presents truths unbelievable in any fiction. You know teenage refugee Hengov (Hiresh Feysal Rahman) doesn’t have any arms before you meet him, but that doesn’t prepare you for the first glimpse of him, lowering his face to a live land mine and gingerly unscrewing the detonating mechanism with his teeth. Farming the local fields for live mines or stacking surplus artillery shells like cordwood are the only ways the camp children have of making any money—and the reason that so many of them are missing appendages or dragging mangled, never-doctored limbs behind them. Satellite runs the crew of kids who do these dangerous duties, and Hengov’s taciturn lack of interest in playing along threatens Satellite’s blustering hegemony. But Hengov’s somber younger sister Agrin (Avaz Latif), who spends her days tending to a blind toddler (Saddam Hossein Feysal), catches Satellite’s eye.
Amateur he may be, but Ebrahim centers the film with a performance that never strays toward precociousness. At times, Satellite seems like the only competent, confident person in the camp—wrangling technology that’s a mystery to his elders, doling out his workers like a savvy Teamster, haggling the best price for the latest batch of mines (“American made!”), and mounting a defense when word finally comes that the war is on. But he is also, devastatingly, just a kid. His bike, the only one in camp and a symbol of his power, is festooned with surely every streamer and bike horn in northern Iraq. His budding courtship of Agrin is full of inchoate longings and desperate stunts. But, as is telegraphed early on and becomes plain as Turtles Can Fly unspools, some of these damaged children have sustained more damage than they can bear, and for some the damage is far from over.
Like other recent war-zone films, such as 2001’s Kandahar, the peripheral performances must be dealt with as-is and the story often meanders; though a subplot involving one character’s clairvoyant abilities provides some suspense, otherwise it seems a bit beside the point. But Ghobadi has a great eye for indelible images (when the camp literally mobilizes, his camera is on the opposite mountaintop taking it all in) and for the absurdly grim life of the refugee. A lingering pan of the tetanus-fest of rusted tanks and armored personnel carriers where the children do what little frolicking they do makes its point without belaboring it. And when Satellite helps the local elders hand out gas masks—with a one-per-family quota, everyone else being advised to stick their heads underwater in the event of a gas attack—Turtles Can Fly is almost funny, in its pitch-black way.
But Ghobadi reserves some of his most artful treatment for the U.S. role in all of this. For Satellite, America and Americans represent all things good—from Titanic and Bruce Lee to an end to Kurdish repression. But the images of President Bush Satellite works so hard to bring down tell the refugees nothing about their fate, and when U.S. forces finally arrive, their pink, scrubbed faces utter blanks, it becomes plain that the refugees’ fate will change very little. If Turtles Can Fly presents any triumph, it’s that anyone who sees the film will not soon forget these children, or the kicked-around Kurdish population that they represent.