In the opening scene of Iranian Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi's "Turtles Can Fly," a cluster of Kurdistani children in Northern Iraq stands in a field holding up TV antennas like kites. ("Sexy channels" are prohibited by Saddam Hussein; news channels are not.) The antennas are for gathering information on the upcoming war, which might as well be Christmas for the excitement it's generated among villagers and refugees. Kak (Soran Ebrahim), an enterprising 13-year-old better known as Satellite, buys a dish and installs it on the roof of a village elder's house. When Bush and Rumsfeld finally appear on the TV, he translates: Mr. Bush predicts rain.
Like the young characters in Italian neo-realist films like Vittorio De Sica's "Sciuscia" and Roberto Rossellini's "Germany Year Zero," the kids in "Turtles Can Fly" are hardened pragmatists, cured of sentimentality by war, poverty, ever-present landmines and Iraqi soldiers. These kids have seen it all — but they remain doggedly childlike in spirit. Ghobadi uses the lack of resources and the surfeit of drama that had been the lot of the Kurds throughout Hussein's dictatorship and both Gulf wars much in the way De Sica and Rossellini used the European tragedies of the '30s and '40s, also casting nonprofessionals, some with limbs lost to landmines studded throughout the Kurdish countryside like cloves on an Easter ham.
We never learn how, exactly, Satellite became the leader of this tent city, but his acolytes follow him unquestioningly. He commands the undying loyalty of at least two trusty lieutenants: Pasheo (Saddam Hossein Feysal), who scoots along on crutches as if turbo-charged, and Shirko (Ajil Zibari), who cries almost constantly. Satellite generates income for himself and for the other kids by sending them out into the fields to collect unexploded landmines with their big, rustic baskets slung over their shoulders. The armless Hangao (Hiresch Feysal Rahman) calmly disarms mines using his teeth.
The contradictions of life in a war zone are heartbreakingly visible in the face of 15-year-old Agrin (Avaz Latif), Hangao's sister, and the reluctant caretaker of a blind toddler named Rega (Abdol Rahman Karim). It's the face of a child broken by suffering. Satellite falls instantly in love with her ("I've been looking for a girl like you all my life"), but Agrin is incapable of reciprocating his feelings and rewards his wooing with impassive stares.
There are very few adults in "Turtles Can Fly," and the ones that are around aren't good for much. Forced to make sense of their world, the children turn to Satellite, who spikes the information available to him with his own fond wishes. On hearing the sound of U.S. helicopters for the first time, Satellite calls it "the sound of American passports." And when the pilots drop fliers, he pretends to read: "Here it is written ... we are your best friends.... We will make your country a paradise." American soldiers may not make the battered Kurdistani countryside paradise, but they do get together with the kids at the end to watch the forbidden channels.
"Turtles Can Fly" (the title refers to the liberation of death) isn't interested in presenting Satellite's belief in the transformative powers of American troops ironically. Nor does it reaffirm popular American notions about good guys and bad guys. Instead, it's a gentle, intelligent reminder of how small our world is, how similar we are, how porous our borders and our cultures — wars, bans and restrictions notwithstanding; and its sophisticated world-view is a gentle rebuke to provincial views of the world in American cinema.
'Turtles Can Fly'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Some scenes of violence that are not excessively graphic, including a rape scene and a boy hurt by an exploding landmine
Saddam Hossein Feysal...Pasheo
Hiresh Feysal Rahman...Hangao
Abdol Rahman Karim...Rega
IFC Films and BAC Films present an MIJ Films/Bahman Ghobadi production. Writer-director Bahman Ghobadi. Producer Bahman Ghobadi. Director of photography Shahriar Assadi. Editor Moustafa Khergheposh-Hayedeh Safiyari. Music Housein Alizadeh. In Kurdish with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.At Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869, and Edwards University 6, 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine, (949) 854-8818.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times