Today I watched the 2004 Kurdish film Turtles Can Fly. This was the first film made in Iraq after the war, and is about life in Kurdistan at the end of Saddam’s reign. I found it an extremely touching film, as well as one of the most successfully-sad films I’ve ever seen.
The story focuses on a group of refugee children led by an intelligent, loud, bespectacled boy who has received the nickname “Satellite.” He controls the fierce loyalty of dozens of young orphan Kurds, and arranges work for them with local village elders–primarily digging out old mines and selling them to arms-dealers. Satellite loves American television, and has picked up a great number of words and phrases that he uses throughout his interactions with his dependents.
It is the eve of the American invasion, and everyone is hungry for news. Satellite helps purchase and set up radios and satellite dishes to assist the villages, and many also demand that he translate for them, making him (still in his early teens) indispensable, not only in watching out for the other boys, but also in giving the Kurds access to news of the war. His authority is unchallenged until three orphans enter the camp: Hengov, a boy whose arms were blown off, Agrin, a preteen girl, and a blind infant boy. Hengov is quiet and non-assertive, but clairvoyant; he predicts the location of a rich minefield, is able to defuse mines with his teeth, and completely disregards Satellite’s attempts to manipulate him, threatening Satellite’s authority.
But Satellite develops a crush on Agrin, and he runs into a man who had come all the way from Iran searching for Hengov, who, though a wanderer, became legend for his abilities. Satellite chooses to act on one of Hengov’s predictions, and in so doing saves the lives of a number of his boys. Thereafter he clumsily tries to get to know Agrin, but she proves cold and unresponsive. Hengov also repeatedly refuses to make any predictions on request.
As it turns out, the toddler is not her brother, as is assumed by the boys, but her son by rape. For this she hates him with a passion, refuses to acknowledge him as her own, and constantly toys with the idea of killing herself. Hengov is concerned, and tries to protect the infant, but Agrin has become callous, and several times tries and fails to get rid of the boy by letting him wander away. Each attempt grows more and more desperate.
The film is beautifully shot and marvelously acted. The characters are incredibly real and incredibly unique. As can be seen from what I have said, this is a potentially very depressing film. Although relieved by moments of humor throughout, it has a sad ending that leaves one with a somewhat empty feeling. I have heard that it was criticized for being “pro-American” in regard to the war, but I frankly don’t see it. The Americans are viewed by Satellite and other Kurds as rescuers from the cruel regime, but we only see the soldiers briefly, and there’s no affirmation that they were truly saviors–if anything, it highlights the irony of their propaganda statement that they will make the land “a paradise.” Certainly, this is a film about the horror of war, and I think that despite the darkness it is a film worth seeing.