In the makeshift refugee villages of northern Iraq shortly before 2003’s U.S.-led invasion, parentless children spend their days collecting landmines and awaiting information on the impending war. With no responsible adults to guide or shelter them, the kids—led by a precocious boy named Satellite (Soran Ebrahim), whose skill with technology makes him a vital member of the temporary community—toil and suffer in quiet, resigned to their bleak fate as dispossessed orphans in a land bereft of familial and national unity, and Turtles Can Fly focuses its even-keeled gaze on these lost, physically and emotionally crippled youngsters with understated sympathy.
Iranian director Bahaman Ghobadi (A Time for Drunken Horses), employing a mixture of harried handheld cinematography and studied compositions of the Iraqi-Turkish borderlands, casts his pint-sized protagonists as metaphors for the disenfranchised Kurdish minority that, left to roam the outskirts of their homeland, struggles to accept and deal with their imposed political (and temporal) alienation. Satellite installs a giant satellite dish so the town can watch FOX News for war updates, and the film offers a brief moment of levity when the local elders express embarrassed disgust at catching a quick glimpse of prohibited channels such as MTV. The refugees eagerly desire news on the coming conflict’s commencement, and Ghobadi—once again eliciting powerful performances from his non-professional cast but exhibiting little of the humor found in Marooned in Iraq—captures the irony of people craving reports on a war that, as Satellite learns at film’s end, cannot satisfactorily erase the tragedy of past misfortunes.
Roaming the town like a pint-sized king on his ten-speed bike adorned (like Pee-Wee Herman’s coveted ride) with colorful flags and tassels, Satellite is smitten with a young girl named Agrin (Avaz Latif) who travels with her armless, future-divining brother and her blind son born of rape. Ghobadi attempts a commentary on the war news’ unreliability by making the armless boy’s prophecies precise, yet this foray into magical realism is ultimately too realistic to be truly magical. Still, via Agrin’s attempts to desert her unwanted son—a chilling vision of parental revulsion that’s at odds with images of the community’s citizen’s huddled together en masse (in the spirit of togetherness) on a hilltop awaiting U.S. warplanes—the director captures the chaotic psychological turmoil of a beleaguered people mired in a hopeless cycle of dismemberment and death.