Turtles Can Fly

Along the Iraqi-Turkish border, the children of a Kurdish refugee camp wait anxiously in the days before the 2003 American invasion. Kak Satellite (Soran Ebrahim), a petty tyrant who’s fascinated by the United States, orders the other kids around, making them dig up landmines then trading them for various goods. “Half of them don’t have hands.” “They’re the best, they’re not afraid of the mines anymore.”

Iranian writer-director Bahman Ghobadi’s latest is the first film to have been shot in Iraq since the end of the Saddam Hussein regime. It’s all the more affecting because these are actual refugees on screen, many of them crippled, and we can see how devastated the country is, with tons of metal scrap lying everywhere.

But as immediate and realistic as “Turtles Can Fly” is, it’s also a very cinematic experience. There’s always an undercurrent of infinite sorrow, but some scenes are beautiful or even funny. Remarkably directed and photographed, there is a true majesty to the recurring long wide shots of misty mountains and valleys, and Ghobadi’s shot composition is constantly amazing. There’s also an almost mythical feel to the story, particularly around Agrin (Avaz Latif), a girl with a Medea complex whom Satellite is enamoured with, and her armless brother Pasheo (Saddam Hossein Feysal), who has visions of the future.

This is one of the most enlightening depictions of war I’ve seen, because it’s seen from the inside, away from politics and straight into the pain of the true victims of these conflicts.