Message in a Bottle: Bahman Ghobadi’s “Turtles Can Fly”
by Michael Koresky, with responses from Erik Syngle and Neal Block
[ indieWIRE’s weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot. ]
The information surplus that over-emphasizes each gesture and facet of our Western culture — the constant stream of news bulletins, minor incidents all tied up with large-scale catastrophes — keeps us at once connected and sanitized. Our miasma of sound and image greatly drowns out those that live largely without this manufactured sensory overload. The gap between how much we see and hear and how much we actually absorb must be vast. Thus, when Satellite — the ostensible protagonist and inadvertent tour guide of Kurdish heartache in Bahman Ghobadi‘s excellent new film “Turtles Can Fly” — stares at a TV screen projecting CNN images of Bush atop the never-ending ticker of bulletins running right to left at the bottom, and all he can translate for his exiled village elders is “It will rain tomorrow,” our own response should be addled empathy rather than Western superiority. On the very cusp of puberty, if the world will allow him to get there, Satellite (Soran Ebrahim) is a rambunctious and street-smart hero, fundamentally, socially required to embody the traits of those wise-acres from countless kid-flicks. The self-made leader of a nomadic group of Kurdish refugee orphans living on the Iraqi-Turkish border directly before the commencement of the 2003 U.S.-Iraqi war, Satellite utilizes his younger friends to collect land mines and sell or exchange them for satellite dishes for his fellow Kurds.
This need to remain connected to the global consciousness through technology exemplifies the rootlessness of the Kurdish people. Yet it’s their very disengagement from information that allows them to remain savvy, their instinctual mistrust of all forms of governance, television included, voiced by one of the few adults portrayed in the film, an elderly Iranian-Kurdish refugee; he acknowledges that the constant stream of news bulletins issuing forth from the U.S. is all manufactured, nothing but a series of manipulated images. Ghobadi, himself Kurdish-Iranian, expresses that the very exile that defines the Kurds also allows them to remain attuned to the world’s hypocrisies. This group of 25 or so million Sunni Muslim minorities, scattered mostly throughout Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, remain drifting, their desperation for a national identity is manifest in “Turtles Can Fly” in the youngest generation, each character able to express a lifetime of pain on their weathered baby-faces. The mysterious young girl Agrin (Avaz Latif), on whom Satellite develops a chaste crush, particularly embodies her people’s generational sadness: though barely in her teenage years, Latif projects middle-aged wisdom and weariness in each startling closeup. Ghobadi’s characters indeed all seem to age rapidly within the course of the film; moving from hope to disillusion to self-destruction and back again. For all the dreadful, powerful imagery Ghobadi serves up (children dousing their clothes in kerosene, sobbing toddlers grasping barbed wire fences in mud-splattered rainstorms, an armless boy unscrewing a land mine cover with this teeth) he never seems to be attempting to shock; his camera simply captures a spot of earth in which daily ritual slowly becomes the stuff of global tragedy.
Ghobadi’s treatment of American intervention is what ascends “Turtles Can Fly” into even greater realms of sociopolitical complexity. The widespread Kurdish response to the U.S.’ Iraqi invasion and subsequent capturing of Saddam, simply wouldn’t fit into the mindset of many a liberal pundit; the ex-Iraqi leader’s threat of unleashing chemical warfare on the Kurdish people directly before the U.S. attack forced them to take sides, and therefore further blurred the line between “occupation” and “liberation.” This film is neither pro- nor anti-U.S. in sentiment; simply put, the film is pragmatic, more concerned with individual response to daily conflict than overarching analysis, yet thoroughly aware of the political machinations that bring about change. Yet the U.S.’s penchant for using the Kurds for leverage during wartime and then abandoning them when it no longer suits them, is reflected in the film’s ultimate disillusionment and shattering final images. American heroism, initially championed by Satellite, doesn’t save anyone in the end. Rarely does a film feel this urgent, like a message in a bottle accidentally washed ashore. Ghobadi dares to tell the story of a corner of the planet in which there is no resolution, no matter how hard those half a world away try to impose a happy ending.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as the assistant editor and frequent contributor of Film Comment.]
by Erik Syngle
A devastating tale of a Kurdish refugee community just before and after the American invasion of Iraq, Bahman Ghobadi’s “Turtles Can Fly” manages to be both a piece of instant-history reportage and a mysterious modern folk tale with allegorical underpinnings, as well as one of the best films ever made about children in wartime, equaling and echoing such masterpieces as “Germany Year Zero” or “Ivan’s Childhood” in its unsentimental take on the way kids live, cope, and die in a wartorn landscape. This is due in large part to the performances of a handful of nonprofessional child actors, many of whom were real refugees from the Iraq-Turkey border region and some of whom bear the mutilating injuries of life among land mines. What sounds like a potentially disastrous exploitation of human suffering becomes totally compelling and even occasionally comic thanks to the believable and fully realized little society drawn by these youngsters.
“Satellite” (Soran Ebrahim), the local handy-boy who commands his own gang of urchins who make a living scavenging land mines, reminded me of a middle-eastern Max Fischer, whose know-it-all adolescent arrogance is constantly being punctured (just like Max, he goes down with one punch — by an armless boy, no less) but who remains endearing in spite of himself. His authority is threatened by the arrival of two inscrutable strangers: the clairvoyant amputee Henkov (Hirsh Feyssal) and his sister Agrin (Avaz Latif). The nearly mute Agrin — whose suicidal leap opens the film — haunts the desolate landscape like she’s stepped out of “The Long Black Veil” or some other mournful ballad and carries an unexplained child with her everywhere. Though there’s some gentle humor surrounding Satellite’s romantic crush on her, she’s already too far gone on her self-annihilating quest to much notice.
Ghobadi manages to pull off some delicate political material tracing Satellite’s disillusionment with the USA — he starts off constantly praising American products, including their mines — that could easily have seemed cheap or heavy-handed. But when the village elders, desperate for news of when the war will begin, are thrilled to have Satellite install a new dish for them so they can tune into the “reliable” foreign channels and they wind up watching Fox News, the bitterness of the irony seemed like the brightest thing in the film.
[Erik Syngle is a co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, and has also written for Film Comment. He is currently working as an undercover cinephile in an undisclosed location.]
by Neal Block
A dead ringer for Corey Feldman in “Stand By Me,” Kurdish refugee Satellite, resplendent in thick specs and pre-adolescent braggadocio, keeps the villages dotting the Iraqi-Turkish border up to date on information of the impending U.S. invasion. Though most of Satellite’s hard news comes from the mysterious predictions of an armless orphan, the villagers and refugees are so hungry for information that they’ll trust the pronouncements of a 12-year-old. Such is life in Bahman Ghobadi’s bleak pre-apocalyptic Iraq, where limbs are less valuable than the mines they might be able to dismantle and sell, and where adults seem as helpless to alter their own fates as blind infants wailing at spools of barbed wire. They must simply wait for a war that could very well change nothing for the better, citizens of a country whose future is not theirs to build. Satellite, a firecracker not yet snuffed out by the wet fingertips of despair, tries to reclaim as much autonomy as he can among the wasted tent-towns and dirty faces. That Ghobadi can find humor amidst all this desolation is a testament to the filmmaker’s talents and the spontaneity of his nonprofessional actors, rather than say, to any ray of sunlight on the horizon. Because what’s most troubling about watching “Turtles Can Fly” a week after Iraqi elections is the knowledge that the fates of these lost children still sway in a fog as dangerous and uncertain as the border on which they live.
[Neal Block is a co-founder of Reverse Shot, and a contributing editor of neumu.com. He currently works as Director of Distribution at Palm Pictures.]