TURTLES CAN FLYNYR
Bahman Ghobadi was directing a brief underwater sequence for Turtles Can Fly when a turtle glided across his field of view, its tiny appendages flapping swiftly but effortlessly, carrying the great weight of its shell. He thought how much that turtle reminded him of his people, the Kurds, how the burden of generations of migration and genocide clung to them like the keratinous armor joined to the turtle, but how, like the turtle, they made of that heft a ballast. Was he not, at that very moment, when President Bush was declaring victory in the war on Iraq, standing on the soil of his ancestors in Iraqi Kurdistan?
It is fair to say that Bahman Ghobabi put Kurdistan on the map in 2000 when his first film, A Time for Drunken Horses, was released in the U.S. We'd heard of Chemical Ali, but most of us didn't know about the horrific chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabcheh in 1988, where thousands more died in the blink of an eye than perished in the World Trade Center in 2001. In his second film, Marooned in Iraq, Ghobadi's characters embark on a journey to rescue one of Halabcheh's victims. In Turtles Can Fly, we meet two survivors, Hengoa, an armless teenager, and Agrin, his sister, who was raped by soldiers during the attack. A blind, lachrymose toddler who clings to Agrin is the child of that rape. The three have settled temporarily in a village where Satellite, the head of a ragtag group of impoverished children, spies Agrin and falls in love with her.
When the film opens, Satellite is much in demand: It's just days before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the village leaders can't get any news. They don't have a satellite dish. Satellite, named for his talent for procuring and installing the dishes, is pressed into making a deal. There are enough landmines, collected by the children, to be traded or sold to an arms dealer in exchange for the dish. The U.N. representative in the village also pays the children for recovered landmines-which would not be re-armed-but the arms dealer pays more. Satellite, an orphan who survives on the profit margin he realizes from the sale of the dish to the village elders, does better with the arms dealer. To comment on the horror of these quotidian realities at the Iran/Iraq border would risk hyperbole, and that would undermine the genius with which Ghobadi depicts them. Suffice it to say that human-rights groups estimate the number of mines at that border to be in the millions.
Turtles Can Fly isn't overtly political-none of Ghobadi's films is-but neither is it simply a love story about an enterprising teenager and a survivor of Halabcheh. It's a story about tyranny. While state-sponsored oppression and the Kurdish diaspora is the inspiration for Ghobadi's films, a more insidious force is to be found in each of his carefully constructed plots: the twin evils of family and tradition, which are in direct opposition to individual identity. In A Time for Drunken Horses, a boy is compelled, by economic circumstances and by custom, to carry on with the smuggling business which killed his father. His sister marries a man chosen by her uncle with the promise that the groom's family will pay for an operation needed by another brother. In the backstory of Marooned in Iraq, Mirza's ex-wife, Hanareh, is forced to choose between her family and her work. In Turtles Can Fly, familial savagery is spotlighted in the life of Agrin, who, despite an ensemble cast, emerges as Ghobadi's central character.
Agrin abuses her baby: The self-loathing she feels as a rape victim is fueled by Hengoa, who forces her to keep the boy. Kurdish society, no more enlightened than our own, views the victims of rape as unworthy of marriage; while the villagers think the blind toddler is a sibling, and Agrin and Hengoa move frequently to protect this fiction, Agrin lives in fear that someone will eventually find out the truth and she will be shamed. Hengoa, despondent over his sister's situation, is nevertheless compelled as head of the family to protect her and his nephew. It's no surprise, then, that Satellite, insinuating himself into this familial simoom, is injured. The tyranny of the triangle of Agrin, Hengoa and the blind toddler is almost too much to bear, and reflects the despair Ghobadi evidently feels when he imagines the future these children will inherit. The crippled Satellite is his only concession; in the teenager's plucky, entrepreneurial spirit, there's some spark of hope.
Ghobadi was born in a border town that Iran claims along the frequently disputed boundary with Iraq. Significantly, Iran entered Turtles Can Fly for Academy Award consideration this year. Despite its being passed over in favor of other worthy films, Turtles Can Fly is an astonishingly accomplished third feature, the work of a mature and visionary writer-director. To say it is haunting does not do it justice; to see Ghobadi's films is to remember them.