The first feature made in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein belongs to a fecund Iranian cinema tradition, in which the experiences of kids double as allegories or microcosms of the society at large. So when a girl jumps off a cliff to her death in the flash-forwarded opening of Turtles Can Fly, there’s no doubt that the void she leaps into is the region’s foreseeable future. In Bahman Ghobadi’s third film, set on the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom and shot in a refugee camp on the Iraq-Turkey border, a boy can take on the role of parent, manager, translator, or paramedic; in early scenes, de facto youth leader Soran (Soran Ebrahim), a/k/a Satellite, is looking for a TV dish so everyone can find out when the U.S. invasion starts.
A pragmatic, warm-hearted tough guy, Satellite is father figure and foreman to his fellow refugee children, whom he organizes in work gangs—they forage in scrap heaps and fields for unexploded mines, which they sell to local U.N. personnel. Many of the kids are orphaned, maimed, or both. (A potential employer complains, “Half of them don’t have hands”—which later adds mordancy to the sight gag when one of Satellite’s loyal henchmen presents him with a chunk of a famously fallen statue: “This is Saddam’s arm. It’s for you.”) The arrival of Henkov (Hirsh Feyssal), an armless, grave-faced boy, vaguely intimidates Satellite’s alpha status, since Henkov has a gift for both accurate prophecy and defusing mines with his teeth.
Henkov scours the minefields with his sister, pensive Agrin (Avaz Latif), and a blind toddler who appears to be their little brother—and who’s the unexpected focal point of Agrin’s rage and desperation, the causes of which Ghobadi soon discloses. Faintly evocative at times of both Mouchette and Marzieh Meshkini’s Stray Dogs, Turtles Can Fly eschews the loose-limbed musical energies of Ghobadi’s Marooned in Iraq (2002) and revisits the basic milieu of his Caméra d’Or-winning A Time for Drunken Horses (2000), wherein a determined band of orphaned youngsters eke out a skeletal living on an Iraqi border. Amid the muddy scrubbery of the camp and its hinterland surroundings, Ghobadi catches some striking compositions: a satellite dish bobbling along amid a bustling crowd, a distant row of men gripping aerials that reach high into the sky for news of the impending war. (This is as near as we get to any of the parents in the camp.)
Ghobadi, an Iranian Kurd, rarely steps back to cast a lingering gaze on his fine handiwork; like Satellite, the film is always charging on to the next pressing situation. Likewise, he has little patience for the formal niceties of narrative through-lines; he picks up and discards story strands (the doctor in search of an orphan, Satellite’s crush on Agrin) at will. But the perpetual motion only temporarily staves off a pervading, self-evident despair. Circling around to its anguished beginning, Turtles Can Fly closes with an open-ended question that only sounds like yet another threat: “Don’t you want to meet the Americans?”