Turtles can Fly Review
Turtles can Fly is the first movie to be filmed on location in Iraq, following the fall of Saddam. It concerns itself with events immediately before American and British forces invaded, largely from the perspective of Kurdish refugees scratching out a living on the Iraq-Turkish border. Its particular subject is children, orphans who have been forced to grow up too quickly as a consequence of the regime's suppression of the Kurds. At an age where kids in the UK would still be at school, these children make their money from collecting deactivated mines, which they can then sell and thereby survive. If this sounds like dangerous work, the number of young workers missing limbs only confirms this to be the case.
What becomes apparent quickly, even before the story really starts, is that this is an 'end of the line' for its characters. The land, which was once farmed, is now riddled with mines. Piles of empty shell cases lie abandoned. People are tentatively optimistic about the prospect of the Americans coming, because they've had a rough time under Saddam, but they know their 'liberators' won't have any true answers. Mostly, they're desperate for information. An early shot shows a field of television antennae, all arranged in a futile attempt to pick up some kind of signal.
Enter Satellite (Soran Ebrahim), a teenage technofile who can speak English and promises to set the village up with a satellite dish (do you see?). Sort of a leader to the orphans, they respond to him as he arranges them into mine-collecting gangs. It looks as though he has the personal charisma to reduce them to tears, though in reality it's clear the children are desperate to cling to any parental figure, even if it's one of their own, and that they're one unexploded bomb away from being altogether lost. Satellite represents the possibility of a hopeful future to them. Despite the fact he's actually quite annoying, shouts rather than speaks and obviously doesn't have all the answers, he's pro-active enough to shelter his peers from the desperate reality of their situation.
Having hooked the dish up, Satellite is required to translate the news feed from CNN to his elders. However, his grasp of English is not much better than pidgin, and instead of correctly interpreting the reports he relies on Henkov (Hirsh Feyssal), another young refugee who can apparently see into the future. Henkov doesn't have any arms, and lives with his sister, Agrin (Avaz Latif) and infant brother Rega (Abdol Rahman Karim). Henkov is less bright about his chances than Satellite, largely because he has seen some true horrors (these are stripped away over the course of the picture), and yet he's a far more capable character. In an early scene he disarms a mine using his teeth; later we find him acting as a comfort blanket for the suicidal Agrin and defender of Rega. Though cynical of his lot and aware life won't be any easier once the Americans arrive, he nevertheless has a strong survival instinct, showing a maturity beyond his years.
And he needs to. The very first scene of the film has Agrin jumping off a cliff, the culmination of a story that follows her attempts to abandon Rega and leave her situation behind. It turns out the toddler isn't her brother at all, but her son after she was raped by Saddam's soldiers pillaging her town. Pregnant at ten and mother to a blind baby, Agrin never has much of a chance. A road to salvation appears as she becomes the object of Satellite's affections, and there's something charmingly innocent about his immature attempts to woo her, especially given what we know about the terrors lurking in her history.
Beyond all this, the film works best when it weaves in and out the minutiae of daily life on the border. Complex relationships develop amongst the children, in particular those between Satellite and Pashow (Saddam Hossein Feysal), who has one leg but can still keep up with the former as he rides his bike, and then there's Shirkooh (Ajil Zibari), who spends the first ten minutes crying and ends up learning to cope better than any of his peers. The landscape has a kind of charred, desolate beauty to it, obviously reflecting the people themselves, and it comes as little surprise to learn that Turtles can Fly was shot on location in the very place it was using as its subject. Similarly, the child actors are all refugees themselves. They've lived the parts they're portraying.
There's always a danger with these kinds of films, like for example Schindler's List, that they are being praised more for their subject matter than their worth as movies. Certainly, Turtles can Fly is by no means perfect. Whole swathes of film are inserted that add little to the overall story, and the editing errs on the flabby side. Scenes can outstay their welcome. I would also argue that Henkov's visions are an unnecessary plot device. Because we've already seen things that are going to happen thanks to his premonitions, the effect when we finally catch up with their revelation is dulled.
However, where Schindler was very slickly put together and couldn't let two minutes pass without making a statement, Turtles quite often lets a camera follow the children around as they carry on with the business of survival. Films don't come much grittier, and it's in refusing to spare us the full horror (along with the cameraderie and humour) of what these kids go through that makes it so watchable. Because of this, several attempts to add metaphoric imagery are less successful.
Turtles can Fly comes with no extras. This is unfortunate. Once I'd watched the film, I would have loved to have learned more about its making, in particular the parallels between fiction and the real life stories of the refugees. Director Bahman Ghobadi admitted that there were times during the filming when he and his crew struggled to stop themselves from crying. Surely there was some rich material to tap into here.
In the meantime, we have a perfectly adequate transfer. Presented in 16:9 Anamorphic, the 'washed out' look of the film can take a little while to get used to, until it becomes apparent that the use of colour is indeed limited. Tiny dashes of richness - such as Agrin's blue shoes - clash sharply with the dull browns and greys of the refugees' world.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 is sound enough. Turtles can Fly uses music sparingly, your soundtrack being dominated by the piercing cries of Kurdish children - in Iraq, it seems speaking in a raised voice is the order of the day. English subtitles are of course available throughout.