Kurdish Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi’s third feature film, Turtles Can Fly (Lakposhtha Parvaz Mikonand, 2004) is like his two previous and very successful features, A Time for Drunken Horses (2000) and Marooned in Iraq (2002), again set in Kurdistan and with native, nonprofessional actors speaking in Kurdish. This is a place where international borders separate the Kurdish community into Turkish, Iraqi, Syrian, and Iranian groupings, and they both symbolise and identify the external political oppression under which the Kurdish people suffer. In Turtles Can Fly, the specific setting is Iraqi Kurdistan close to the Turkish border, and the events take place in 2003, just prior to the American invasion of Iraq, when the local Kurdish population was anticipating some sort of liberation that such an invasion might generate.
For me, Turtles Can Fly is Ghobadi’s most challenging film, and I am still struggling to come to terms with it. It is a very uneasy mixture of grim reality and allegorical fantasy. It contains elements of heartbreaking suffering, but interspersed with moments of childish silliness. The sum total remains fragmented in my mind, as I reflectively turn over various aspects of the film.
The story is set mostly inside a Kurdish refugee camp, populated almost entirely by young orphans whose parents have been killed by Saddam Hussein’s military. The children scrounge for everything, and many of them seem to belong to a gang that is led by a resourceful young teenager known as “Satellite” (Soran Ebrahim). Satellite has gotten his nickname on account of his being the only person in the camp who can set up a TV satellite dish and thereby connect the Kurdish inhabitants to the outside world -- an external world which may someday bring “deliverance” (from Saddam Hussein's tyranny -- as a consequence of an American attack on Iraq). Many of the children in the camp are crippled from land mine explosions, and Satellite’s most faithful lieutenant, Pashow, has a deformed leg, forcing him to hop around on crutches. Nevertheless, one of Satellite’s main "businesses" involves organising the camp children to risk further disabling injuries by going out in the countryside to disarm and collect landmines for resale in the black market.
Satellite soon becomes enamoured with Agrin, a very young teenage girl accompanied by her older brother, Hengov (who is also known as the “Armless Boy” for obvious reasons). Agrin and Hengov also carry about with them a blind 3-year-old child, who we later learn is actually Agrin’s son, born as a result of her having been raped by Iraqi soldiers. Agrin has been emotionally damaged by that rape, and throughout the film she seeks to get rid of her blind child by abandoning it in the wilderness or drowning it. In fact we have been signalled from the very first images of the film that she is suicidal, and when we gradually discover these facts about her past, we know why. She eventually succeeds in her efforts at self-destruction by first drowning her son and then finally killing herself.
Hengov, despite his armless condition, is a resourceful operative and viewed by Satellite to be something of a threat to his preeminence in the camp. And this threat grows in magnitude when Satellite learns that Hengov has the ability to see into the future. But Satellite eventually makes peace and seeks to become Hengov's friend in a vain attempt to get closer to Agrin. In the end the American invasion does take place, and for some of the children, at least, it offers some (probably illusory) hope for the future -- but not for Hengov and Satellite.
This film has been characterised by most American reviewers as a gritty, neo-realistic exercise, but I don’t see it as such, unless you are possibly thinking of de Sica’s Miracle in Milan (1951), which was something of an outlier. Rather than neo-realism, Turtles Can Fly has the look and feel of a fantasy, whose allegorical aspects must be associated with whatever Satellite and Hengov may symbolise. Satellite is resourceful and optimistic, but his knowledge is pathetically limited: his technical skills, of which he boasts immensely, are only just a bit ahead of the others in the village. To a certain extent his boastful foolishness could be said to represent the limitations of reliance on Western technical learning, and he could be seen as a false prophet. On the other hand, he is self-reliant, generally good-natured, and never doubts himself -- all undeniably positive traits. Hengov’s condition and his prophetic capabilities are a counterbalance of some sort, but the underlying significance of all this is unclear to me.
Ghobadi does well, as he has done before, to fashion a film with visual continuity in what must have been very difficult conditions. He manages to create distinctive personalities and visual motifs for all his principal teenage characters. And these performers, none of whom have appeared in films before, all do pretty well under the circumstances. For some reason, I particuarly liked one of Satellite's loyal assistants, the earnest and often tearful Shirkooh. Nevertheless, the mixture of humour and tragedy presented in Turtles Can Fly did not come together for me the way it did in Marooned in Iraq. Of course, we can reflect on the fact that children everywhere will always have energy, good humour, and hopefulness, no matter what the circumstances are. The juxtaposition of this unquenchable, happy vitality with the ghastly horrors which the adult world visit on them make us frustrated with the way things are. But the melancholic beauty of Ghobadi’s two earlier films did not quite make its presence in this film. In spite of that, Ghobadi is uniquely original -- one of the major cinematic auteurs.