- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 20, 2005

In a few short years, filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi has acquired cinematic title to the remote, mountainous and war-ravaged terrain of his native Kurdistan with a series of haunted, semi-documentary fables — “A Time for Drunken Horses,” “Marooned in Iraq” and, now, “Turtles Can Fly.”

“Turtles,” his vivid and searing third feature, updates a subject indelibly dramatized in the aftermath of World War II by director Vittorio De Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini in “Shoeshine.”

The resourceful but vulnerable Roman urchins of 60 years ago, pestering GIs to stand still for shoeshines, are supplanted by the juvenile work gangs organized and bossed at a refugee encampment by an industrious, prickly teenager named Soran (Soran Ebrahim), better known as Satellite, in deference to his ability to install satellite dishes.

He is urged to acquire and erect a dish as quickly as possible by village elders who want to be able to watch news telecasts as soon as war breaks out between Saddam Hussein and the Americans, who are expected to roll over the Turkish border at any moment.

Satellite’s crews, typically stocked with children crippled by war injuries, are busy day after day collecting shell casings and defused land mines, which become barter for other goods at the nearest black market.

Satellite’s hold on the labor market is precarious, but he projects a sense of command that masks his ignorance and insecurity. He’s also tall for his age and still in possession of all his limbs, something of a rarity among the camp’s youth population. He has flunkies at his beck and call, plus a prized bicycle that symbolizes his authority. His smattering of English allows him to pass as bilingual with his peers and patrons.

Satellite’s self-esteem is threatened by the arrival of an armless boy, Hengov (Hiresh Feysal Rahman), who is credited with clairvoyant powers and proves physically fearless. This rival is accompanied by a beautiful younger sister named Agrin (Avaz Latif), who provokes an instant crush in Satellite but remains painfully beyond the reach of anyone inclined to impress or protect her.

Satellite tries to make himself attractive but arouses nothing tender in Agrin, consumed by a quality of despair that defies remedy. Mr. Ghobadi never quite accounts for her emotional desolation by inserting nightmarish flashbacks that depict her as a rape victim. He’s asking for more than a novice performer can clarify. His case history is more confused than heartbreaking.

There’s also a blind toddler sibling called Riga, often bound to Hegov or Agrin to prevent him from wandering. Agrin seems loathe to acknowledge kinship with this child, for reasons that function as the story’s deepest, darkest secret.

Mr. Ghobadi has a tendency to lose you while partly concealing the ordeals that have disfigured his principal characters, physically or spiritually. The ominous immediacy of the settings and the authenticity of nonprofessional performers are not always adequate compensation for slack dramatic construction.

Nevertheless, Mr. Ghobadi possesses a grave and stirring poetic flair. He invokes a sense of hardship, struggle and loss that often harks back to antiquity, linking the young casualties and survivors of Kurdistan to countless generations of the exiled and abandoned.


TITLE: “Turtles Can Fly”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (adult subject matter, revolving around children orphaned or seriously injured in wartime)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Bahman Ghobadi. Cinematography by Shahram Assadi. Music by Hossein Alizadeh. In Kurdish with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

WEB SITE: www.ifcfilms.com/turtles


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