Turtles Can Fly takes place in a small rural village along the Turkish-Iraqi border, just weeks before the start of the 2003 U.S.-led war against Iraq. Refugees, fleeing violence elsewhere, are crowded into tents on the outskirts of town. Anxious for news of the impending invasion, the village elders are talked into purchasing a satellite dish for their television set by Soran (Soran Ebrahim, who, like all cast members, is a nonprofessional), a precocious teenager whose technical know-how has made him an indispensable part of the community and earned him the nickname "Satellite."
The village and refugee camp are home to hundreds of children, many of them orphaned. Like the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist, Satellite has become their leader. To support themselves, the children swarm into the surrounding hills and fields and defuse land mines, which Satellite then sells to interested buyers. The extreme danger of the work can be seen in the number of missing limbs among the children.
A young refugee, about Satellite's age, appears in camp one day. Hangao (Hiresh Feysal Rahman) has no arms, a casualty of the ongoing conflict, but he has learned to defuse land mines with his teeth. Accompanying him are his sister, Agrin (Avaz Latif), about 13, and Rega (Abdol Rahman Karim), a curious and adventurous 3-year-old blind child of uncertain parentage.
When Satellite first sees Agrin, it is as though Cupid has shot an arrow directly into the young man's heart. His face all but melts with longing, and he stumbles over himself trying to impress her. Too lost in her own trauma to notice, Agrin gazes back with grave, unsmiling eyes. Her expression never changes.
Despite the terrible hardships they must endure, most of the children have retained their scrappy spirits and ingenuous natures. Agrin, however, seems incapable of joy. Weighed down by some invisible burden, she goes through the motions of living, but she is barely functioning. Her distaste for Rega, whom she carries around on her back, is clear. She wants to abandon him, but her brother refuses. More than once she climbs to the top of a nearby cliff and gazes down, yearning for an end to her pain.
So natural and believable are the performances Ghobadi elicits from his young cast that the film easily could be mistaken for a documentary. Further enhancing this impression are the wide, steady camera shots that allow scenes to play out in lengthy takes.
A terrible sense of tension underlies the film because of our constant fear that something bad will happen to the children. And the fact that the specific plot may not be true in no way diminishes this terrible feeling, for the children cast in the film are real children who have been just as physically and emotionally crippled by war and hardship as the characters they portray.
Turtles Can Fly lacks the absurdist sensibility that enlivened parts of Marooned in Iraq -- the only one of Ghobadi's films to deal primarily with adults rather than children -- but it does have its humorous moments. Some are visual, as when we see a line of men standing on a hilltop against a vibrant blue sky, each man holding an antenna aloft while Satellite tries to get a signal for the village's sole television set. Some of it derives from character, whether the natural antics of rambunctious children or the adult posturing of Satellite as he argues with a child.
But mostly we are struck by the tragedy of children forced to fend for themselves -- and by our own desire to wrap our arms around them and console and protect them. Hangao is able to see into the future, but is powerless to change its course. One of the most difficult aspects of watching a movie like this is our own feeling of impotence. The fact that the world community refuses to take a stand, however (or takes a stand by doing nothing), neither prevents nor excuses us as individuals from doing something.
Turtles Can Fly is not intended as a political film -- it is neither pro- nor anti-United States -- and viewers don't need to know anything about the history of the Kurds to relate to the characters or their situations (it is immediately clear from the film that their history is one of war, dislocation, and struggle for survival). Perhaps Ghobadi's greatest gift is his ability to put a human face to suffering. Certainly this quietly devastating film does just that.