Confession first: I know not a thing about Iranian cinema, although I should. The Iranian New Wave, the interweb tells me, is all kinds of important. So I’m glad that I was introduced to Bahman Ghobadi’s Turtles Can Fly (Lakposhtha hâm parvaz mikonand). The Kurdish-Iranian director’s 2004 feature was the first picture to be filmed in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and it serves as a very fine advertisement for the Iranian film industry. Even though it’s all in Kurdish.
The film opens in the run-up to the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003. In a refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, near the Turkish border, a boy nicknamed Satellite (Soran Ebrahim) is trying to bring colour television to the camp since the elders are anxious to follow the news. Satellite is the sometimes tyrannical, but usually good-hearted leader of the local children, whom he commands in clearing minefields. Children, some of them crippled by stepping on mines, selling the very same to survive: this isn’t exactly cheery stuff. Among the newer arrivals is the armless boy Hengov (Hiresh Feysal Rahman) with his sister Agrin (Avaz Latif), who take care of a blind toddler. Satellite falls for Agrin in the way of pre-pubescent boys. Hengov, meanwhile, appears to be able to predict the future, and Satellite begins to stake his personal authority on the truth of the boy’s dreams.
Turtles Can Fly is an odd film by the narrow standards we usually apply. It has no villains for a start. The dreadful conditions of war and poverty in which the children (there are a few adults in the background, but all the main characters are children) find themselves are seen by them as given, almost natural conditions. In this Turtles Can Fly reminded me of Takahata Isao’s 1988 animated film Grave of the Fireflies: both films are about children who have never known any life other than the inhumane situation in which they are forced to exist, and they adapt.
This brings me, inevitably, to one of the criticisms levelled at Turtles Can Fly: the accusation that it is pro-American and condones the US conquest of Iraq. This seems to me amazingly wrong-headed. First, it is downright perverse to condemn Saddam’s victims for rejoicing in his downfall, and indeed the Kurds suffered terribly under the Iraqi dictator; there is little doubt they are freer and more prosperous now than they were before 2003. I opposed the invasion of Iraq then and still oppose it now; but it is a simple truth that Saddam’s enemies, the Kurds among them, are now generally better off. Second, Ghobadi is not interested in the sort of argument his critics would have him engage in here. He instead explores the experience of childhood, not in its wide-eyed wonder but in its innocent acceptance of the world as experienced.
Terrible things are done by children in Turtles Can Fly. But it’s difficult to condemn them. The conflict of the film is between characters who all want what’s best, but do not agree on what that might be. Its world is limited: the Americans and Iraqi Arabs only make very short non-speaking appearances. This deliberate self-limitation is Ghobadi’s greatest strength here. He refuses to create a world larger than what its characters experience. The repeated attempts to perceive and understand the outside world through the medium of satellite television are thus both a poignant and humorous reminder of the problems encountered on the way.
Let the word ‘humorous’ not mislead you. Turtles Can Fly is a brutal and bleak experience, a devastating examination of the ways in which war victimises and brutalises children. That’s what the jingoistic cultural output of the western world, from Saving Private Ryan to Remembrance Day speeches, misses: war isn’t combat for some noble goal, it’s children with their arms blown off. That was true in World War Two, and it’s true in all our modern wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq and Somalia. We gave Saddam the weapons of mass destruction he no longer had when we invaded his country and killed tens of thousands of his people.
But if the film is dark, it isn’t a dreadful watching experience. There’s the talent of the director, which creates beauty in unexpected places; what’s more, the movie is suffused with a humanistic faith in people’s ability to choose good in the darkest of times. You’re left wondering what will become of the protagonists after the film’s close, and desperately hoping they will prosper.