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iffr: turtles can fly

"Turtles Can Fly" is Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi's new film (after "A Time for Drunken Horses"), and the first film to be made in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Set in a refugee camp just before the war in Iraq, it portrays the grim daily life of a group of kids, many of them maimed, who, led by a boy called Satellite, gather mines to sell to the UN.

Agrin & Henkov in Turtles Can Fly

Newly arriving in the camp are a girl troubled by war traumas and her armless brother who can look into the future and foresees the coming of the war. Together they try to take care of a blind toddler.

Director Ghobadi explained in the Q&A after the screening how the image of these three children for him symbolized the different dimensions of time in the camp: the troubled past, the blind present and the prophetic future.

When asked how he managed to get such impressive acting from these children -- who are not actors but actual refugees in the camp -- he told us he tried to "keep the story as close as possible to their own personal experiences, so that they didn't have to act but could 'relive' the scenes..."

Update: Below is a longer essay titled 'Deprived from the Sky', examining symbolism in 'Turtles Can Fly'. Written in 2006 for a course on media and identity at the University of Amsterdam, and discussing the film in light of identity theories by Ernest Renan and David Morley, it is somewhat more academic than usual on this blog.

Deprived from the Sky, Symbolism in Turtles Can Fly

1. Introduction

Look what Saddam has done to us! We have no water, no electricity, and no schools. They have deprived us from the sky. They don't let our TVs work to see when the war will start.

The film 'Turtles Can Fly' ('Lakposhtha Hâm Parvaz Mikonand', Iran/France/Iraq: Bahman Ghobadi, 2004) portrays the life of a group of children in a Kurdish refugee camp on the Iraqi-Turkish border, on the eve of the American invasion in 2003. The first film to be produced in Iraq after the war, 'Turtles Can Fly' was made with non-professional actors, all children who in reality, as in the film, are maimed and traumatized refugees. While unflinchingly realistic in its depiction of these childrens' fates, the film's most impressive feat is perhaps in managing to infuse enough humor into its bleak story to keep it bearable to watch. The film was widely praised in the international film festival circuit and received numerous awards, among which the Audience Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2005.

Avoiding overt political statements, 'Turtles Can Fly' is concerned first and foremost with the plight of children. According to director Ghobadi, his aim was to make a film

...whose leading stars were neither Bush, nor Saddam, nor any other dictators. Those people had been the media stars the world over. (...) In my film, the supporting cast are Bush and Saddam. By contrast, the Iraqi people and the street children play the leading parts.

However, the film employs extensive symbolism to treat such 'grown-up' themes as the Kurdish identity and nation, home and belonging. This paper analyzes the use of symbolism in 'Turtles Can Fly', focusing on its representations of nation and home.

In line with the film (as well as for lack of space), this paper will not go into the complex political situation of the Kurds, which instead will have to be summed up in one telling quote:

The Kurds are a people inhabiting parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey (a contiguous region commonly referred to as Kurdistan). (...) Estimated at about 30 million people, the Kurds comprise one of the largest ethnic groups in the world without a separate country.

2. Satellite's American Passport

'Turtles Can Fly' is almost entirely populated by children, with only a few adult characters, who remain passively peripheral. The film first introduces us to a boy named Kak, nicknamed Satellite. Bossy and entrepeneurial, Satellite leads the many village and refugee children in the hazardous but lucrative activity of clearing farm fields of land mines. In an emblematic shot early in the film, we see a panorama of hillside pastures and what looks like cattle grazing; looking closer, we discover they are children; zooming in further, we realize they are harvesting landmines. The cynicism of this work is expressed in an exchange between Satellite and one of the farmers, who, seeing the children appointed to his field, exclaims: "Half of them don't have hands!" To which Satellite replies: "So what? They are not afraid of mines. They are our best."

Satellite's nickname reflects another of his skills: installing satellite dishes for the villages in a region which craves news on the impending American invasion. Satellite, who speaks only a few words of English, is also prevailed upon to translate the news for the village elders. Watching Fox News with them, he announces: "Here is Mr. Bush. The world is in his hands!" But when asked what Bush is saying, he replies uncertainly: "He says it will rain tomorrow."

Still, all Satellite's hopes are on the US, and he practices his English in anticipation of the invasion. Later on in the film, when American army helicopters are approaching, he muses: "That's the sound of them... Of our American passports dropping!" But the helicopters drop only pamphlets filled with Western liberation rethoric.

3. The Lame Leading the Blind

Into this precarious community arrives a trio of refugees: Agrin, a severely traumatized and suicidal girl; her armless brother Henkov, who is rumored to have the gift of foresight; and a blind toddler named Riga, who Agrin and Henkov take care of together. At first we assume Riga is their little brother.

While Henkov - whom we first meet defusing a mine with his teeth - challenges Satellite's leadership, Satellite soon falls for the beautiful, mysterious Agrin, pursuing her with attention and gifts. (Despite the harsh circumstances, they are still teenagers.) But Agrin shows no response. The sad, shell-shocked look in her eyes speaks of a great trauma in her past, the horrible truth of which is only revealed bit by bit.

Agrin seems to lack any caring feelings for the toddler and repeatedly resolves to leave Riga behind. Arguing about this with Henkov, she exclaims bitterly: "I can't take care of a bastard all night long!" And: "Isn't he the child of those who killed our family and did this to me?" Even more alarming is Agrins suicidal behavior. The film opens with a flash-forward prologue in which she leaps off a cliff. Halfway through the film, this scene is repeated (except now she doesn't jump), and here, suddenly, we get a glimpse of her past - made all the more jolting as this is the first time the narrative seriously departs from linearity. We see a burning village, the chaos of war, and Agrin, screaming, being raped by an Iraqi soldier. We are now forced to conclude that Riga is Agrin's son.

4. The Kurdish Nation

At a Q&A session at the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2005, director Ghobadi commented on the trio of Agrin, Henkov and Riga, explaining that these three characters can be seen as symbolizing, respectively, the traumatic past, the prophetic future and the blind present of the Kurds. This symbolic interpretation reminds of Renan's definition of a nation as "a soul, a spiritual principle." In his 1882 essay 'What Is A Nation?', French philosopher Ernest Renan denounced racial, linguistic, religious and geographical determinism in the creation of nations, instead describing nations as fundamentally constituting two elements: a past of shared memories and a present of consent.

More valuable by far than common custom posts and frontiers (...) is the fact of sharing, in the past, a glorious heritage and regrets, and of having, in the future, a shared programme to put into effect, or the fact of having suffered, enjoyed, and hoped together.

'Turtles Can Fly' shows these elements to be trauma and blind helplessness for the nationless Kurds. For Agrin the traumas of the past are unbearable, making Renan's assertion, however apt, that "suffering in common unifies more than joy does," sound almost sardonic. The present, "the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life," is hardly less cruel when applied to Riga. In one of the film's most harrowing scenes, the blind toddler, left behind by Agrin, has wandered into a mine field. Satellite tries to rescue him, but just as he reaches the child a mine explodes, leaving him severely injured, though Riga unscathed. But in the end, the present is too irrevocably linked with the past. Despairing, Agrin drowns her son and commits suicide by leaping off the cliff - both acts we knew were coming but are no less shocking for it.

In a region where the ground is full of deadly explosives, its inhabitants look to the sky for news and for freedom. But when the satellite news is incomprehensibly foreign, and the freedom that comes from the sky is in pamphlets, the only path to freedom left open may be in flying - that is, death. (The deaths of Agrin and Riga are joined in this symbolism of flying when, under water, we see Riga's body sinking while a turtle swims upwards. For a brief moment, turtles can fly.)

Thus neither Renan's stipulated past nor present survive, but 'Turtles Can Fly' adds a third element: a prophetic future, in the character of armless Henkov. Henkov's visions take the film into mystic territory - no explanation is given for his gift - yet he predicts the start of the war more reliably than the news. If this, however, is to be the symbol of the Kurdish future as a nation, it is a bleak one indeed: a mutilated mystic whose prophecies all spell war and death.

5. The Refugee's Home

In contrast to this tragic national symbol, the character of Satellite represents the community's link to the world, both practically, in linking up the camp to satellite television, and through his Western fervor. "Learn to say 'okay' and everything will be alright," he says, dreaming of an American passport.

Satellite provides an interesting perspective on David Morley's ideas about home and belonging in a globalized world dominated by hypermobility and "destabilizing flux". Morley's article 'Belongings: Place, Space and Identity in a Mediated World' (2001) is concerned with the transformative effects of the invasion of the "realm of the far" into the "realm of the near", both in the "mediascape" and in the "ethnoscape," and both on a macro level (of nations) and a micro level (of the home). In this postmodern world, the home comes to be less defined by the physicality of "blood, property and frontiers," but more as a "space of belonging," where "people search for safety in ideas of community."

Since Morley primarily looks at the Western situation, 'Turtles Can Fly' may in this context appear to be merely an exotic illustration of the Other. Put bluntly, the Kurdish refugee Satellite potentially is the invasion that causes so much "identity panics" in the West. Moreover, concepts like home and "spaces of belonging" seem cynically incommensurable with a refugee camp.

And yet we can also see the similarities between the Western perspective and that of the Kurdish community in their struggles with identity panics. After installing the satellite dish, Satellite zaps past some of the prohibited foreign channels (the "sexy and dance channels" as he calls them), and the village elders all piously avert their heads. The mediascape invasion - bringing "encounters with alterity" as well as the craved-for news - foreshadows the real and equally eagerly awaited invasion of the American army, which will prove to be a mixed blessing as well. When the liberation finally comes, Satellite has to miss it, confined to bed with a mine-shattered foot. The other children bring him news: "Sadam has fallen!" And: "The children are up on the hill watching the prohibited channels with the [American] soldiers." With this unheard-of transgression, the invasion of alterity is complete.

While Morley signals regressive strategies in the West against unwanted invasions of immigrants and global media, the Kurdish refugees lack even this luxury. They are powerless in the face of the global forces contesting their land and minds, a feeling futher heightened by showing such major geopolitical events from the perspective of children. The film ends with Satellite, on crutches, watching by the roadside as the American army passes by. When Satellite turns his back on them, his friend asks: "Didn't you want to see the Americans?" Without replying, Satellite hobbles away, a forlorn war victim in stark contrast to the boastful optimist we met at the start of the film. It is now clear that he is just one of the many, as Castells dubbed them, powerless "interacted" in the globalized world. Even though he has acquired a house (for his work on the satellite dish, the villagers arranged a discarded Turkish tank for him to live in), he has lost all sense of belonging.

6. Conclusion

The two symbols of the introverted national trinity of Agrin, Riga and Henkov, and the extroverted, worldly Satellite meet in Satellite's crush on Agrin. His courting Agrin may be viewed as the nationless "vagabond" wanting to belong, to have a home rooted in a unifying past. But Agrin is beyond Satellite's help, or indeed beyond offering any kind of belonging. Satellite then tries to save the blind present (Riga), but comes away mutilated. And the future? Henkov may accurately predict the war, but he also foresees the death of Agrin and Riga, and is unable to prevent them. By the end of the film he has disappeared in the chaos of war, along, perhaps, with any future Kurdish nation. Only Satellite remains, his Western aspirations crushed.

'Turtles Can Fly' thus leaves little cause for hope, neither for its community of refugees nor for the Kurdish nation. As we have seen, the two representations of the Kurdish nation and the refugee's home are highly paradoxical, if not contradictory concepts - and it is this realization which creates the disillusionment of the film's ending. Ghobadi sums up the aftertaste:

Once the film is over, you realise that the past is bitter, that the present is bitter, and that you should look up to no one but yourself for the future. Powerful foreigners have no intention of creating a heaven for us.

"Forgetting," Renan said, "is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation." In this light the suicide of Agrin (the bitter past) can perhaps be interpreted optimistically. Even if it still leaves the Kurds by the roadside.


iffr: story undone

Only at the Rotterdam Film Festival will you find yourself in a late night Q&A entirely conducted in Farsi. Iranian director Hassan Yektapanah explains his film ' Story Undone ', a weirdly funny film about two documentary makers attem… Read the full post »

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