In the village of Iraqi Kurdistan, on the border between Iran and Turkey, orphaned children lead very adult lives as they try to survive the looming days before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The leader of these children is Satellite (Soran Ebrahim), a kind of cable repairman figure for the local villages. As he travels around installing dishes and antennae, a young, silent girl catches his eye. The mysterious girl (Avaz Latif), wandering the countryside with her armless, seemingly clairvoyant brother (Hirsch Feyssal) and a toddler, has a death wish and doesn't respond to Satellite's advances. As doom approaches this fragile region of the world, Satellite gets lost in his own daily struggles, unaware of the tragedy that lies before him.
The third feature from director Bahman Ghobadi ("A Time for Drunken Horses") is a bit of a miracle all around. One of the only Iran-Iraq co-productions in today's marketplace, "Turtles Can Fly" (IMDb listing) tells a very distinctive story about life and society in the middle of a media flashflood. The picture is reminiscent of the 1997 Iranian film "Children of Heaven" and Danny Boyle's recent "Millions" in its depiction of a child's point of view that does not infantilize the situations at hand.
The characters in "Turtles" are thrust into the adult world by tragedy, and they cannot turn back. To survive, they must compete with adults around them. In the case of Satellite, he builds his own community of orphans (in a somewhat Artful Dodger role) to carry out his deeds, including harrowing sequences where the children are set off to collect land mines (the limbless ones with their teeth), or empty a truck filled with thousands of spent artillery casings, which form a macabre maze of gloom.
The objective of "Turtles" is to get away from the media saturation surrounding Iraq and instead capture the emotional atmosphere of the citizens, who only get the occasional taste of traditional news outlets. Through confusion, rumor, and panic, these people live through the Iraqi invasion. The young, amateur cast brilliantly sells this mood of despair and survival, and Ghobadi pulls out terrifically heartbreaking performances from everyone. The actors create a taut sense of community and claustrophobia, which "Turtles" needs urgently when the film intermittently gets loftier, abstract ambitions. Ghobadi wisely keeps politics out of the mix, using George Bush and Saddam Hussein as a visual backdrop to the tale, but moving way beyond the figurehead look at the country.
"Turtles" is ultimately a bleak, disturbing film. Yet, it's a portrait that provides a needed break from the rising tide of suffocating media. It reminds us all that between the headlines, there is a human element that is often forgotten. "Turtles Can Fly" is a powerful reminder of just what is lost when world leaders decide to go to war.
Filmfodder Grade: B+