It's March 2003 in Northern Iraq, and 13-year-old orphanSoran (Soran Ebrahim) is thoroughly enjoying the sway he holds among hisneighboring cluster of Kurdish villages as the only local who knows howto acquire and install satellite dishes to bring news (which he also pretendsto translate) of the impending American invasion.
Known to everyone by the nickname "Satellite,"the boy has a curiously endearing cockiness that only partially masks thekind of youthful angst that's unavoidable for a kid with crooked teethand cockeyed glasses. He's strong-willed and industrious -- employing andsupporting the village children, whom he enjoys bossing around as they digup and dismantle land mines to sell in the underground arms market. Butultimately he's still 13 years old, which is why he becomes obsessed witha quiet, outwardly impassive, inwardly haunted orphan girl from the refugeecamp that has sprung up nearby.
The third feature by Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi ("Maroonedin Iraq," "A Time for Drunken Horses"), "Turtles CanFly" is a tragic yet bittersweet, simple yet spellbinding slice oflife's uncertainty. Set in a rugged, wind-swept desert mountain regionwhere the coming war is only the latest challenge to Kurdish fortitude,the film envelops you completely in Satellite's scrappy existence amongtent villages, mud houses, rusted-out tank wreckage and scrap-metal artilleryshells.
But even more significantly, it captures the war-tornpsyches of its young characters -- none more so than the girl Satelliteclumsily woos (Avaz Latif), who is led toward catastrophe by traumatizingflashbacks of an Iraqi attack on her village that left her emotionallyscarred, left her seemingly clairvoyant brother without arms, and saddledthem both with caring for a half-blind 3-year-old.
The ingenuous performances of these non-professional actorshave a poignant earnestness that Bahman uses to blow cold breezes of visceralmelancholy through the desolate landscape of "Turtles Can Fly."Yet at the same time the film has a humanity, humor and hope that springsfrom Satellite's small-scale entrepreneurial perseverance.
A few of the peripheral characters -- mostly other children-- don't seem to have the same knack for being unaffected before the camera,but this is an insignificant quibble. It's not like Bahman could hold auditionsfor five-line roles in this remote locale.
Regardless, "Turtles Can Fly" masterfully personifiesthe practiced endurance of the Kurdish people in the face of calamity,and brings into sharp relief a pivotal moment in history from an oft-forgottenperspective. It is an unpretentious, understated tour de force ofMiddle Eastern cinema.