Turtles Can Fly

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Turtles Can Fly
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews Laura Clifford 
On the eve of the Coalition invasion of Iraq the people on the Kurd-Turkish border are starved for news. Their elaborate complex of antennae are useless because of the information blackout imposed by the Saddam Hussein regime. One village, though, has a techno savvy, entrepreneurial 13-year old, nicknamed Satellite (Soran Ebrahim), who can hook them up with a hi-tech dish to get information on the upcoming war in Turtles Can Fly.”

This is the third film from Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi who made a spectacular debut with his heart-wrenching/gut-wrenching “A Time For Drunken Horses.” With his very first effort, he established his ability to tell a story, use the rugged countryside to amazing affect visually and garner incredibly believable performances from his young non-actors. “Turtles Can Fly” represents a continued maturing of Ghobadi as a filmmaker and storyteller.

The images that Ghobadi creates, with the wonderfully artistic lensing by Sharam Assadi and ruggedly beautiful landscape of the director’s native Iran, belie the low budget and harsh filmmaking conditions. With the remote land near the Iranian-Turkish border as the backdrop, we meet Satellite, the go to lad in the tiny village, wiring up every antenna in every home to give the locals access to the news. When Iraq jams any news from the outside to the area, the villagers are cut off from the world just as America and her allies are preparing to attack Saddam Hussein’s armies.

When the chief elder demands that Satellite do something the boy agrees to try to get them a satellite dish to solve their problems. He journeys to a distant town where he finds out that the village is too poor to afford a state of the art dish. Ever resourceful, he barters for a big, old-fashioned dish and heads for home. Much to the young entrepreneur’s chagrin – he ran a lucrative business with the village orphans to collect landmines for trade – he finds that a lanky, armless boy, Hengov (Hiresh Faysal Rahman), his sister, Agrin (Avaz Latif) and a young child, Riga (Abdol Rahman Karim), have moved into town and threaten to take over his business. But, Satellite can’t help but notice the pretty, sullen and mysterious Agrin and is intrigued by Hengov’s seeming ability to prophesize the future. As the story progresses it also becomes obvious that the crux of Agrin’s emotional troubles is little Riga.

Turtles Can Fly” is both a harshly realistic film about the plight of those, especially the young, who survive the aftermath of war and a study that gives a glimmer of hope for those who have suffered for so long. Ghobadi does this with his deft storytelling, from his own script, and a firm hand that elicits believable, if amateur, performances from his young cast. Young Soran Ebrahim is commanding as a kid who fills much bigger shoes than he should. He uses his knowledge and “management” skills to manipulate the villagers like a film director does his cast and crew. Money may always be an ulterior motive for Satellite but he is also the only hope the orphans have to survive.

Avaz Latif is mesmerizing as the incredibly troubled Agrin who Satellite tries to help, despite his rivalry with Hengov. Hiresh Faysal Rahman does a physically incredible job as the armless but resourceful Hengov. Two other characters also stand out in this youthful cast. Ajil Zibari is marvelous as little Shirkooh, Satellites devoted and loyal protégé who idolizes his boss and follows him like an obedient puppy dog, and the boy is absolutely charming. Saddam Hossein Feysal also gives a fine, strong perf as Pashow, Satellite’s lieutenant and second-in-command of their little army of minesweepers.

There is an effective melding of childhood innocence and the hard life the kids must endure as they face danger every day by digging up the multitude of landmines that cover the countryside. In one particularly harrowing scene, Satellite arrives at one of the minefields his kids are working to find that little Riga has wandered smack in the middle of it. The rescue attempt is a real fist-clencher. Other such scenes, as when armless Hengrov defuses a mine with his feet, resonate effectively as they build tension.

Iran has produced some of the most incredible world-class films over the past years and Bahman Ghobadi is one of the bright stars in that vibrant industry. “Turtles Can Fly” is an assured piece of artistry and craftsmanship and a pleasure to watch. I give it a B+.

Just before the American invasion of Iraq on the border between Iran and Turkey, a young boy with an entrepreneurial spirit nicknamed Satellite (Soran Ebrahim) trades in land mines and satellite dish installations in order to care for scores of homeless kids.  Satellite's smitten when a girl from Halabcheh, Agrin (Avaz Latif), enters his realm, but he'll never know her bleak background nor expect the outcome of her older brother's premonitions in writer/director Bahman Ghobadi's  ("A Time for Drunken Horses," "Marooned in Iraq") 2004 San Sebastian Golden Shell winner and Iranian submission for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, "Turtles Can Fly."

Iranian filmmaker Ghobadi brought to light the numbing poverty and harsh lives of Kurdish children in his first film.  In this, the first movie filmed in Iraq following Saddam's fall, he once again shines a light on forgotten innocents growing up amidst conditions Westerners could barely fathom.

Young Satellite moves 'his' kids around like an army commander, along with right-hand man Pashow (Saddam Hossein Feysal) and adoring adjunct Shirkooh (the adorable Ajil Zibari). Barking commands and screaming deals (yet always showing concern for his charges), Satellite moves about the adult world with ease. Pashow also moves, quickly - so quickly in fact that you may not notice at first his shriveled leg and crutch.  Many of these kids matter-of-factly deal with horrible wounds from previous wars and land mines.  We first see Hengov (Hiresh Feysal Rahman), Agrin's brother, dismantling a land mine with his mouth - he's lost both arms - and when Satellite believes he's called him a liar, Hengov just head butts the sputtering kid.  Satellite's attempts to woo Agrin ('I am at your service') give Ghobadi's film some comic charm, but it is upon Agrin that the film's mood takes a dark turn when we discover that the baby, Riga (Abdol Rahman Karim), she always carries on her back is not her younger brother, as Satellite believes. While Satellite will never understand why his courtship is spurned, his gung-ho perception of the US takes a late turn, perhaps the culmination of Hengov's last prediction. (Hengov's most tragic vision gives the film its title.)

Once again, the director obtains truthful and moving portrayals from his young, non-professional cast.  Avaz Latif has the look of a budding great beauty already marked by the harsh environment (the violin score the accompanies her appearances from Satellite's point of view deepens her melancholy mystery).  Her face is frequently the focal point of some of Ghobadi's more arresting images.  His story has elements of comedy (Satellite's dealings with the elder Esmaeel, who holds his bike in ransom in order that he will translate CNN), fable (Shirkooh presenting Satellite with 'Saddam's arm' from the famous fallen statue), symbolism (red fish in a pond, whose meaning is a mystery on these shores), dramatic suspense (Satellite going in to rescue Riga from a mine field), political commentary and tragedy.

Not every element of "Turtles Can Fly" may be immediately understood by Western audiences, but the circumstances of its children and Ghobadi's poetic presentation of them cannot fail to move.


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