“Turtles Can Fly” is the first movie to come out of Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. But the movie doesn’t look at the mess in Baghdad head-on; instead, Iranian-Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi concentrates on Kurdish refugees on the Iraq-Turkey border, who await the U.S. troops with cautious optimism.
Ghobadi uses local children as his cast; adults are mostly absent from the screen and we’re left to assume that most of the characters are orphans. Ghobadi’s not saving us any grief by featuring younger characters-his little protagonists are certainly precocious and occasionally cute, but they’ve all gone through enough traumas to last them many more years.
The real whiz kid of the town is 13-year-old Kak (Soran Ebrahim), who is named Satellite after setting up a television for the village elders and translating (badly) the war news on Fox News and CNN. He supervises the kids in the collection and trade-in of unexploded mines, dolling out orders with expressions such as “wait until my representative arrives” and random bits of English.
Satellite is the undisputed boss until the arrival of Hengov (Hiresh Feysal Rahman), an armless boy who can predict the future. The supernatural element gives the otherwise gritty movie an ethereal quality, enhanced by spooky music and a gray, alien landscape.
Hengov comes from Iraq proper with his sister Agrin (Avaz Latif) and an infant that Agrin is constantly trying to leave behind. The baby’s origins are revealed in a flashback that explodes with the violence that is always hovering around the refugees’ lives. Something horrible has happened to Agrin, but the relentless severity of life after the event, for her and for the other refugees, seems almost worse
The children do manage to have some fun. In one scene, Satellite and his friend Pashow (Saddam Hossein Feysal) mock a Turkish border guard from behind barbed wire; Pashow takes his maimed leg in both arms and pretends it’s a machine gun. When the guard starts firing back, they just run away laughing. After a truck full of scrap metal explodes, Satellite gives Agrin a gas mask to show his affection. When Satellite mocks Hengov for having no arms, Hengov silently head butts him. Ghobadi doesn’t condescend to suggest that such moments make their lives better, and they don’t make a sad story a happy one. But seeing middle-schoolers stand up to total despair makes it easier for us comfortable viewers.
By the time the Americans arrive, the tone of the movie has shifted from perseverance to general despair. Between the images of war on television and Hengov’s dark visions, it seems that the future will not be much better than the past. The U.S. troops drop leaflets proclaiming that they will “take away your sorrows,” but from Ghobadi’s view, the soldiers just drive by the refugees on their way to confront the Baathist army. “Don’t you want to meet the Americans?” Pashow asks Satellite, who is back on his feet after a harrowing accident with a mine. Satellite just hobbles away.
“Turtles Can Fly” opens Friday at E Street Cinema.