Mar 5, 2008

Movie Review: "Turtles Can Fly"

In his films, Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi casts a surreal spell. With unnerving calm, his movies show a world that is so far removed from what western audiences are familiar with that it couldn’t possibly be real—and yet, it is. Stark beauty, horrible realities, and dreamy, magic elements blend into a disturbing whole.

As in his first feature, “A Time for Drunken Horses,” the story of “Turtles Can Fly” focuses on a group of children that is trying to survive in extreme circumstances. Set in an Kurdish refugee camp town on the Turkish border of Iraq, the film opens in the days before George W. Bush’s invasion. Under an icy-blue sky, in primitive surroundings made of tents and barbed wire, a boy nicknamed Satellite commandeers an army of children to work for the town, clearing fields of mines. Barely a teenager, Satellite bargains, appoints deputies, and installs a beaten-up satellite dish: news about the impending war is scarce.

But there is another way to get news: Pasheo, an armless refugee who arrived with his sister Agrin and her baby boy, has visions of the future. Agrin is a child herself, but she meets the world with a vacant stare: the war has taken her will to live. The camera lingers on her beautiful, absent face, and from the opening shots, Ghobadi makes no secret of her fate.

Agrin’s crushed soul is one extreme, and Satellite’s irrepressible optimism, symbolized by the colorfully adorned bicycle he pushes down muddy roads, is the other. In between is everybody else: Satellite’s friend with a crippled foot who runs on crutches like an antelope, the boy who burst into tears at any occasion, and the town elders, who fret that the television is showing “the prohibited channels.”

Ghobadi sprinkles some magic realism over the film, but the reality he is depicting is so bizarre that it barely registers as unlikely. If ours is a world where infants can toddle through minefields and red fish live at the bottom of sink holes near machine-gun infested borders, and children live in abandoned tanks and treat their toothaches with kerosene, then a mystical oracle is not such an unlikely thing. By showing image after startling image, Bahman Ghobadi makes us question everything we think we know.

reviewed by From Jürgen Fauth, published at

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