(Lakposhtha hâm parvaz mikonand)

Directed by Bahman Ghobadi. Iran/Iraq.  2004.

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Expecting another bleak, minimalist Iranian film I was totally unprepared for the exuberance and unforgettable power of Kurdish director Bohman Ghobadi's (Time For Drunken Horses) Turtles Can Fly. A joint Iran-Iraq venture, the film is the first narrative film to be shot in Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein and is a view of war from the inside of a Kurdish refugee camp close to the Iraq-Turkish border just prior to and during the U.S. invasion. There is no overt political message in the film, yet the hundreds of parentless children in the film, many with broken limbs from exploding landmines, tell a story of war that transcends politics.

In a country where there remains an estimated 50 million landmines, the marketing of unexploded landmines can be a lucrative business. At least, it is a means of survival for a thirteen-year old nicknamed "Satellite" who organizes groups of youngsters to defuse landmines and sell them to arms dealers for food. Assisted by friends Pashow (Saddam Hossein Feysal) and Shirkooh (Ajil Zibari), Satellite (Soran Ebrahim) is a cocky but natural leader who received his nickname from his ability to install satellite dishes in an area where the villagers are hungry for news about the upcoming U.S. invasion. The children live in a world that has no electricity and no schools and where watching television with a satellite dish is a luxury, especially when many of the channels are forbidden. Because satellite knows some English, he is asked to translate news broadcasts for the old men in the village but refuses, saying his job is only to install. Humorously, the elders cringe when he switches the channel to MTV.

A potential threat to Satellite's power is an armless orphan Hengov (Hiresh Feysal Rahman) whose ability to defuse landmines with his teeth lead to a struggle for power between the two. Hengov also has the ability to predict the future and, as their relationship warms, he ends up feeding information that enables Satellite to solidify his power over the children. One telling scene that Hengov predicts is when an American helicopter flies over the children clustered on a hill and drops leaflets saying that Americans will make this country a paradise, a hollow boast as it turned out. Satellite is attracted to Hengov's sister Agrin (Avaz Latif) who cares for Riga (Abdol Rahman Karim), a sightless two-year old boy, later revealed to be the result of a rape by Iraqi soldiers during a skirmish in which her parents were killed and her brother lost his limbs. Agrin is a haunting presence in the film and her ultimate acts of desperation bookend the film.

Turtles Can Fly is a remarkable work of commitment from Ghobadi, an assistant director on Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us. He wants the world to know the plight of millions of stateless Kurds who are at the mercy of politicians who support them when it suits their purposes and oppose them when it does not. Coming on the wake of Kore'eda's Nobody Knows, another film about abandoned children, Ghobadi's film is both a celebration of the innocence of children and a warning about the dangers they face from dictators, fascists, and over-zealous democrats. Far better than any CNN or El Jazeera news account possibly could relate, the story of the war is written in their soulful faces.


Howard Schumann
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