In Saddam's Shadow

Turtles Can Fly follows the suffering of Kurds -- and their remarkable resilience.

War spares no one -- children least of all.
War spares no one -- children least of all.
Perhaps no filmmaker working today better exemplifies the great humanist tradition of Italian neorealism than the gifted Kurdish-Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi, whose movies -- A Time for Drunken Horses, Marooned in Iraq (aka Songs of My Motherland), and now Turtles Can Fly -- deal with the plight of the Kurdish people, especially its children. Painful to watch and impossible to forget, these films do more than simply tell stories; they bear witness. That they showcase the Kurdish people's remarkable resilience and vitality as well as their boundless pain and suffering may be what makes them bearable.

Turtles Can Fly takes place in a small rural village along the Turkish-Iraqi border, weeks before the start of the U.S.-led 2003 war against Iraq. Refugees fleeing violence crowd into tents outside town. Anxious for news of the impending invasion, the village elders are talked into purchasing a satellite dish for their television set by Soran (Soran Ebrahim, who, like all cast members, is a nonprofessional), a precocious teenager whose technical know-how has made him indispensable and earned him the nickname "Satellite."

The village and refugee camp are home to hundreds of children, many of them orphaned. Like the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist, Satellite has become their leader. To support themselves, the children swarm into the surrounding hills and fields and defuse land mines, which Satellite then sells to interested buyers. The extreme danger of the work can be seen in the number of missing limbs among the children.

A young refugee about Satellite's age appears in camp one day. Hangao (Hiresh Feysal Rahman) lost his arms in the ongoing conflict, but he has learned to defuse land mines with his teeth. Accompanying him are his sister, Agrin (Avaz Latif), about 13, and Rega (Abdol Rahman Karim), a curious and adventurous three-year-old, blind and of uncertain parentage.

When Satellite first sees Agrin, it is as though Cupid has shot an arrow directly into the young man's heart. His face all but melts with longing, and he stumbles over himself trying to impress her. Too lost in her own trauma to notice, Agrin gazes back with grave, unsmiling eyes. Her expression never changes.

Despite the terrible hardships they must endure, most of the children have retained their scrappy spirits and ingenuous natures. Agrin, however, seems incapable of joy. Weighed down by some invisible burden, she goes through the motions of living, but she is barely functioning. Her distaste for Rega, whom she carries around on her back, is clear. She wants to abandon him, but her brother refuses. More than once she climbs to the top of a nearby cliff and gazes down, yearning for an end to her pain.

So natural and believable are the performances Ghobadi elicits from his young cast that the film easily could be mistaken for a documentary. A terrible sense of tension underlies the film, a result of our constant fear that something bad will happen to the children. And the fact that the specific plot may not be true in no way diminishes this terrible feeling, for the children cast in the film are real children who are just as physically and emotionally crippled by war and hardship as the characters they portray.

We are struck by the tragedy of children forced to fend for themselves -- and by our own desire to wrap our arms around them and console and protect them. Hangao is able to see into the future, but is powerless to change its course. One of the most difficult aspects of watching a movie like this is our own feeling of impotence. However, the fact that the world community refuses to take a stand (or takes a stand by doing nothing) neither prevents nor excuses us as individuals from doing something.

Turtles Can Fly is not intended as a political film -- it is neither pro- nor anti-U.S. -- and viewers don't need to know anything about the history of the Kurds to relate to the characters or their situations (it is immediately clear from the film that their history is one of war, dislocation, and struggle for survival). Perhaps Ghobadi's greatest gift is his ability to put a human face to suffering. Certainly this quietly devastating film does just that.