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The heirs of wars
Bahman Ghobadi's "Turtles Can Fly"

February 8, 2005

Rotterdam, Netherlands
Turtles Can Fly -- Lakposht-ha ham parvaz mikonand -- (Bahman Ghobadi, 2004) is a compelling and provocative anti-war film. It is one of the first feature films to emerge from post-war Iraq. The film is about what often happens to children in wars. It is the story of mainly six refugee children and their lives in a Kurdish refugee camp in a mountainous region near the border of Iraq and Turkey. It is set in 2003 and begins a few weeks before the start of the Iraq war. The children, who are played by non-professional actors, have lost their parents and live on their own, fending for themselves. Most of them carry severe emotional and physical injuries from the war. The film tells the story of what happens to them after the U.S. invasion and how it changes their lives.

Turtles Can Fly is the story of a young boy named Satellite (Soran Ebrahim) who is very resourceful, confident, and a natural leader among kids. He has a couple of deputies or assistants. These are Pasheo (Saddam Hossein Feysal) and Shirko (Ajil Zibari). Pasheo is a cheerful boy who walks with a crutch. He has lost the use of one of his legs because of a land-mine accident. Shirko is a comical fellow, but he is often sobbing and in tears.

The film is also the story of a beautiful young girl named Agrin (Avaz Latif) who is most often accompanied by her brother, Hangao (Hiresh Feysal Rahman), and a little boy named Rega (Abdol Rahman Karim). They are from a neighboring village, Halabcheh, which is a small Kurdish city in Iraq near the Iranian border that Saddam Hussein attacked with chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war. Hangao, who has lost his arms, is clairvoyant and can sometimes see the future; Rega is blind and his identity in much of the film is a little ambiguous.

Turtles Can Fly begins with Agrin leaping to her death from a rocky cliff. Ghobadi then sets us on the journey of discovery of who she is and why she is taking her own life. The audience is taken to a refugee camp where as more war appears more likely, the inhabitants urgently and anxiously want to know about the impending war and when the Americans are coming. The refugees at the camp seem to be mostly children and old folks.

Satellite, who is named for his technical abilities, urges them to pull their resources together and get a satellite dish. After they do just that, he himself travels to the nearest city and barters fifteen radios and some cash for a satellite dish. He then installs the dish and connects it to the elders‚ television set, so that they can watch the news.

But the news seems useless because neither the elders nor Satellite can understand it, since it is in English. Ultimately, Satellite comes to rely on and trust the intuitions and predictions of the clairvoyant Hangao. Satellite also finds himself very drawn to Hangao‚s sister Agrin. He enthusiastically sets out to court her and to win her over by doing things for her and by impressing her.

Satellite's courtship of Agrin is enchanting and very sweet. But Agrin is unable to respond to his affections. Agrin is a mysterious girl. She is always very gloomy and melancholy. It is plain to see that she has undergone great mental anguish. She never smiles and looks very unhappy. It is as if she is only half alive. At the end, our fears are proven right and we find out that although she does not have the grave physical injuries that some of the other children in this film have, her injuries are more emotional and cut much deeper than theirs.

What makes Turtles Can Fly a very unique film is that it shows us war from the perspective of children. This is a very different point of view than the one we usually find in war movies. What the film makes clear is that in any war or military conflict, children suffer the most and that when world leaders go to war, it is the children who will bear the brunt of the misery and grief.

The film shows that because children are to a large extent helpless and powerless, in wars they become highly susceptible to physical or emotional injuries. It is always they who are in the position to receive the most amounts of misery and suffering in the hand of war makers, generals, and soldiers. Many of the children in this film are intensely unhappy, because they are forced to live with the constant violence of war and can not escape it.

Turtles Can Fly is also unique because it places us among very unique children and in a very unique landscape, namely, the landscape of war. The children who make up the main characters of the film live in some of the harshest and most dangerous conditions and environments imaginable. In the refugee camp and its vicinity, life is very precarious.

The place where the story is set is a wasteland filled with land-mines, unexploded ammunitions, and old tanks. It is a land littered with war wreckage. Among the remains of military hardware, the refugee children live in a makeshift town of tents, surrounded by barbed wire. They are constantly under the threat of being maimed or killed by land-mines, unexploded bombs, and border guards. Many of the children make a meager living by recovering and selling land-mines from the surrounding fields. These variables add up to create a high degree of suspense and tension throughout the film.

Some of the most moving scenes of the film are in an ammunition junkyard where empty bomb shells and missile casings are stored and stacked up on top of each other. This is where the children play and work. Here at one point we find the toddler Rega looking through stacks of bomb shells, crying out ŒMommy?‚ and Daddy?‚, and searching for them. Then Ghobadi gives us a close up of Agrin who is gazing at some far away point and seems completely oblivious to what Rega is doing. She is utterly detached from her surroundings. This scene, perhaps better than any other, illustrates very beautifully and painfully the film‚s theme of the brutalities of war.

In another gripping sequence, Rega needs medical attention so he and Hangao are riding on the back of Satellite‚s bicycle to a place where they can find some help. As they are riding Hangao begins to have a premonition that the U.S. invasion is about to begin. Ghobadi portrays this by going back and forth from Hangao‚s sad face to U.S. bombers loading up for attack and taking off from aircraft carriers. I found this scene to be very chilling and frightening. I think that it reminded me of my own powerlessness and the powerlessness of others who oppose wars, to affect in any substantial way the decision of those who set wars in motion.

Having described Turtles Can Fly as mostly a tragedy and a gloomy account of children‚s lives during and in the aftermath of wars, I think that I should mention that this is not the whole story and that surprisingly there is in fact much humor in this film. The humor is often very effective and works to soften the blows of the harsh realities which this film is dealing with. It also makes the film more watch-able and enjoyable, because it is life affirming.

In many ways this film is as much about the will to survive and the celebration of life as it is about the forces and the circumstances that bring about destruction and hell. In Ghobadi‚s film, the refugee children live in impossible and tragic circumstances but they are tough and most somehow manage to go on with life. Despite their suffering, they pull together and work for common goals. They raise each other and take care of one another. They play together, have fun, and fall in love. They also show a remarkable amount of optimism and tenderness toward each other. In the end, these dynamics make Turtles Can Fly a film which is both sad as well as uplifting

Turtles Can Fly is in Kurdish. It is Iran's official 2005 Academy Award‚s submission for best foreign-language film. It is Bahman Ghobadi‚s third feature length film. He also made the highly acclaimed Marooned in Iraq 2003 and A Time for Drunken Horses 2000. Both of these are also very moving and compelling. They deal with the struggles and the hardships of the Kurds.

The Kurds are the world‚s largest ethnic group without their own state. Their numbers exceed 25 million and most live in Kurdistan, an extensive plateau and mountain area in South West Asia which includes parts of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran and smaller sections of Syria and Armenia. Historically, Kurds have been treated badly by the regional powers. They had to endure living under foreign rulers for centuries. More recently, the Kurds have received especially harsh treatment at the hands of the Turkish and Iraqi governments and armies. In light of these facts, some Kurds want to establish an independent state. But understandably all the region's governments are weary of such an idea.

In summary, Turtles Can Fly is a powerful cry on behalf of all children who find themselves in the middle of armed conflicts and wars or are living under tyranny. It gracefully deals with very difficult and tragic issues without being very mellow-dramatic or preachy. It is at once a beautiful film and a haunting one. It is shot in a very unusual and extraordinary landscape. It has astounding visuals. It also has many startling, shocking, and memorable, scenes and sequences. The acting which Ghobadi is able to get out of the children is very convincing and simply superb. The film is written intelligently, the dialogues are realistic, and the storytelling is clear and straight forward. It just what the world needs right now, a penetrating and engaging anti-war film.

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