Bahman Ghobadi confirms his place as the poet laureate of Kurdish cinema with “Turtles Can Fly,” an engrossing, nuanced pic about orphaned children in a refugee camp on the Iraq-Turkish border just prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Even more than in his very fine “A Time for Drunken Horses” and “Marooned in Iraq,” Ghobadi in this pic displays a complete command of his art as he shifts between — and even blends — wrenching tragedy and amusing comedy. An excellent fest run seems assured, and aud interest in seeing another side of Iraq should spur considerable commercial interest in the West.
As Abbas Kiarostami’s former assistant, Ghobadi understands the power of stark, stripped-down images on screen, and he comes up with a stunner at pic’s start: A squad of boys is seen hoisting giant TV antennae above their heads so their makeshift tent village can receive news from the outside world. At once, scene suggests a people’s hunger for knowledge, their resourcefulness in the face of dire poverty and an absurdist contrast of high and low tech.
Type A personality Soran aka “Satellite” (Soran Ebrahim) knows this scheme won’t work, and, as a young teen in charge of putting the camp’s kids to work defusing land mines, he quickly decides to trade for a satellite dish. This leads to one of several hilarious sequences, where he has to deal with the conservative community elders, who don’t want the racy cable channels shown, and is asked to translate Fox News’ warmongering reporting into Kurdish.
Although Satellite at first appears obnoxious and is shown yelling and bossing younger kids around, he gradually becomes more sympathetic, especially in a complicated, testy relationship between him and Henkov (Hirsh Feyssal), who lost his arms in a mine explosion. Henkov, who seems to have a gift for prophecy, takes care of pretty Agrin (Avaz Latif) and little boy Risa, who may or may not be Agrin’s child.
Increasingly, Satellite is drawn to Agrin, sensing he can be helpful to her and obviously attracted to her. Agrin speaks only when it counts, but Latif uses her face as a map to a badly damaged heart. Anguished and suicidal, Agrin tells Henkov that she wants to abandon Risa, fearing tragic consequences if she remains his mom. Where the boys in “Turtles” are often physically deformed (due to mines or Iraqi chemical weapons), Agrin, who was raped by Saddam Hussein’s soldiers, is even more victimized internally.
Even as her tragic story develops, pic retains an astonishingly light-hearted spirit as Ghobadi follows Satellite and his go-getter projects. The two starkly different tones finally meld into one in a phenomenal scene set just after the U.S. invasion (actual Yank soldiers and tanks appear on screen), when a hurt Satellite is offered an arm broken off of a Saddam statue.
Ghobadi delivers a complicated view of the war: After early enthusiasm Donald Rumsfeld would applaud, the characters shrug off the actual invasion in the face of Agrin’s horrific plight. Viewers expecting a rah-rah cheer for President Bush from the top Kurd filmmaker will be caught up short.
As he showed in “Drunken Horses,” Ghobadi can pull amazingly rich perfs out of real non-pro kids, all of them enhanced by his terrific sense of humor. Instead of the vagabonds in “Drunken Horses” and “Marooned,” the people in “Turtles” are stuck in one place — a place that lenser Shariar Assadi makes sure is never prettified. Housein Alizadeh’s music reaches chilling dramatic passages, in lock step with Moustafa Khergheposh and Hayedeh Safiyari’s fine editing.