Turtles Can Fly (2004)

Director:  Bahman Ghobadi
Cast:   Soran EbrahimAvaz LatifSaddam Hossein Feysal
Plot:  Near the Iraqi-Turkish border on the eve of an American invasion, refugee children like 13-year-old Kak, gauge and await their fate.

Genre:  Drama / War
Awards:  Won Crystal Bear and Peace Film Award (Berlin).
Runtime:  98min
Rating:  PG for violence, disturbing images and mature thematic material, all involving children.

This is not a thriller by any definition, but it contains some of the most suspenseful moments ever captured in contemporary foreign cinema.  Turtles Can Fly is about refugee children at the Iraqi-Turkish border who are caught in the midst of an impending war.  To survive and make ends meet, they have little choice but to collect American mines to sell them at the market.  Some get their limbs blown off when the mines go off; others get blown to bits.  Of course, we don’t see this because the film is not about violent consequences but the uncertainty of one’s fate. 

In one scene, an armless boy removes a firing pin from a land mine using his mouth to disarm it.  In another, a blind toddler steps into a minefield.  These are incredibly tense moments, perhaps even more tense than certain parts of The Hurt Locker (2008), but they are not exactly why Turtles Can Fly is a powerful and important motion picture.

It is powerful and important because the story is told from the point-of-view of these helpless children.  Political decisions that lead to war often seem like the last resort, but there is no such thing as the last resort when children are inescapably caught in the web.  Written and directed by Bahman Ghobadi, Turtles Can Fly is a film that calls for peace.  I think this is the kind of film everybody, particularly political leaders, should see. 

However, this is not a political film.  It is a humanist drama.  The aforementioned children are led by an entrepreneur kid called Satellite for his ability to fix satellite dishes and translate international news to the local Kurds.  The US is about to bomb Iraq, and everyone has mixed feelings about it.  They demand for news, only to await their fate (or is it their liberation?).

Through the use of flashbacks that foreshadow ominous events and inform viewers about the tragic past, Turtles Can Fly  centers on key characters like Satellite and his buddies, while also telling the personal story of a brother and sister who cross paths with them.  Ghobadi, who previously made A Time for Drunken Horses (2000) and Marooned in Iraq (2002) that won awards at Cannes, does not treat the characters with pity, but rather with dignity.  The performances by the child actors are extraordinary, and they are actual refugees. 

Turtles Can Fly was also the first film to be shot in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein.  Through its cinematography, we witness the beautiful landscape and its beautiful people.  But we also see the ruins of the war and the fragility of the human condition.  These children, ever so resourceful and brave, continue their journey.  They may be young, but they endure.

Verdict:  Powerful when it needs to be, this humanist drama centers not on politics but the tragedies that befall children caught in the midst of war.

GRADE: A- (8.5/10 or 4 stars)

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