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Friday, Sept. 16, 2005

A truth just too painful to behold

Turtles Can Fly

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Bahmen Ghobadi
Running time: 97 minutes
Language: Kurdish (Japanese subtitles)
Opens Sept. 17
[See Japan Times movie listings]

"Turtles Can Fly" is fiction, but everything about it feels real, more real than news footage, more immediate than a documentary.

News photo
Avaz Latif in "Turtles can Fly"

From the breathtaking opening sequence in which a young Kurdish girl (13 or 14 at the most) jumps from a cliff to the gray, rocky terrain below, leaving behind a last, despairing glance at the camera and a pair of shoes, the urgency is such that it's like someone or something has a vice grip on your heart. Stricken and helpless, you watch her fate and predicament explained, as the story returns to the point where she first arrives at a Kurdish refugee camp on the Turkish-Iranian border. She has a little blind boy strapped to her back, presumably her younger brother. Her gentle, older brother is missing both arms. Not once does she smile. There's nothing to smile about.

"Turtles Can Fly" (titled "Kame mo Sora o Tobu" in Japan) is Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi's third feature, after debuting with "A Time for Drunken Horses," which was also about the plight of orphaned Kurdish children struggling to save a younger brother from a severe illness. That too, depicted preteens in a state of unimaginable hardship (so much so that it felt like it was a story from the Middle Ages).

This time Ghobadi sets the story in a more timely frame -- days before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. As the Kurds await the arrival of U.S. troops with a mixture of fear and rising expectations, a band of orphans, helmed by an enterprising boy nicknamed Satellite (Soran Ebrahim), install satellite dishes so they can get news of the war (and when they finally do get CNN, no one can understand English), dig out land mines, which they can exchange for cash from U.N. personnel, scavenge and run errands for the elderly.

Satellite is certain that once the Americans come in, life will change and the Kurds will be liberated from Saddam's reign that have kept them in a state of misery for decades. He favors the Americans to such an extent that he tells everyone to dig out only American-manufactured land mines, not really linking them to the fact that the U.S. government had, at one point, supported Saddam. The adults remember, of course, and are skeptic about what the invasion will bring. They try to caution Satellite, but he's too busy working, hollering and barking orders to listen.

With the arrival of Agrin (Avaz Latif) and her brothers, Henkov (Hirash Fasil Rahman) and Rigah (Abdol Rahman Karim), to the camp, Satellite's world shifts to a new emotional level. He develops a giant crush for the pensive Agrin, her huge sad eyes always seeming to stare out over the horizon to some secret land known only to her. Using his bicycle -- his most prized possession and the only one in the camp -- Satellite offers to help with her chores and take care of her baby brother, but she refuses and asks only for one thing: some thick rope.

Later, it's disclosed that the baby isn't a brother, but Agrin's son (she was raped by Iraqi soldiers). Agrin is tortured by horrendous memories and in one scene she ties the baby to a tree with the rope and leaves him there, unable to deal with the burden with caring for/loving him.

And almost every other child in this story is teetering from the weight of incredible burdens. Most of the orphans are maimed and are missing digits, causing an adult (who acts as middleman between the mine-digging children and the U.N., looks a bit shifty, and is most likely cheating the kids) to remark with resignation: "None of you have hands anymore. How will you get the work done?"

Satellite, one of the few orphans to have all his limbs intact, assures him: "But we're the best, no one can get mines like we do!" Satellite is right. He has enlisted the help of Agrin's older brother, Henkov, known as "The Boy With No Arms," who has an uncanny ability to know where the mines are buried and can defuse them ever so carefully, using just his teeth.

The collective desperation and anguish of Satellite, Agrin, Henkov and even the sweetly ignorant Rigah, who's content as long as he's strapped to his mother's back, often seems too enormous for the screen to contain and at the same time reminds us that their pain is as old as history itself -- where there is war, there has always been and will always be children like these.

As Satellite discovers later with a shock, war, by its nature, cannot be a cause for hope, and the grand politics that were deployed to justify it erodes quicker than he can pronounce Peter Jennings. What remains are the consequences: the corpses, land mines, the refugees, the on-going unceasing grind of the machinery of war. In the process, it's the children who are chewed up, spewed out and tossed outside the logic of history like debris. This is what one of Satellite's underlings says: "Legs that get blown up don't grow back, do they?"

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