From the opening shots of Bahman Ghobadi's visionary Turtles Can Fly—his third dramatic feature, after A Time for Drunken Horses (2000) and Marooned in Iraq (2002)—it is apparent that we are in the hands of a master. His images have an instantly readable, almost surreal graphic clarity, even when they are roiling with more vibrant surface detail than we can possibly absorb—which in this movie is almost always. In just a few quick, epic-scaled views of a refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, Ghobadi opens up a new world for us, as a group of children struggle to plant a TV antenna on a dusty hilltop so that they can get the latest reports from CNN on the pending American invasion.
If Ghobadi is a visionary, he's also a missionary who seems to make movies chiefly in order to bear witness to the sufferings of his native Kurdistan, which—wedged as it is right up against Turkey and between Iran and Iraq—has been repeatedly kicked around, in his words, "like a soccer ball among these big countries." Signature scenes in Turtles Can Fly include a few that are almost too awful to watch, like the rapt close-ups of an armless Kurdish war orphan defusing an abandoned land mine with his teeth. But Ghobadi's genius seems supercharged rather than weighed down by his higher calling, and his imagery is so boilingly alive that we come away from it feeling exhilarated rather than depressed.
None of the protagonists looks much older than 14. The story's major source of energy is a boy known as Satellite (Soran Ebrahim), a classic finder/fixer/hustler of the sort who seems to crop up in every war zone. A motor-mouthed entrepreneur in Buddy Holly specs, he commands the army of children who swarm over the rolling scrub-brush hillsides hunting for mines and shell casings to be sold for scrap. He finally earns his geek nickname when he gets fed up with the antenna project, hauls a small heap of excavated metal to a crowded, illicit-looking street market, and trades it in for a real satellite dish. (Ghobadi alludes to the climate of oppression in prewar Iraq only once, in the skittishness of village elders who gather with their hookahs on an outdoor rug to watch cable news on the brand-new dish. When a "prohibited channel"—possibly MTV—is tuned in accidentally, they avert their gaze in unison.)
Into this teeming landscape of perpetual struggle wanders a trio of newcomers who are depicted not quite realistically but perhaps as they are perceived by the children, as mythic figures out of a folktale, wandering through the wasteland. The emaciated leader of the interlopers is the abovementioned armless boy (Hiresh Feysal Rahman), who, the children whisper, can predict the future; his mesmerizing sister Agrin (Avaz Latif), a suicidal wraith in the homespun robe of a native sorceress; and a beaming, blind 1-year-old who has an alarming habit of wandering off, gurgling, into the minefields unless he is kept on a tight leash, like a mischievous puppy.
Ghobadi included some discreet if harrowing shots of Kurdish victims of chemical attacks in his last movie, Marooned in Iraq—it's no surprise, then, that he does not regard the Americans as the bad guys in this distant-thunder account of the recent war. Indeed, shots of U.S. convoys in Turtles Can Fly have been staged by this extremely film-savvy director to resemble World War II newsreels of GIs marching into Italy. Although the impending conflict is described by one character as "the end of the world," it is a distinctive feature of Ghobadi's account that the war outside Kurdistan barely even impinges on the characters' state of misery, for better or worse. (The occupation that follows is an anticlimax, too, heralded, with Ghobadi's characteristic gallows humor, by an announcement that would give any self-respecting mullah nightmares: "The children are watching the prohibited channels with the American soldiers!") The worst that can be said of the Americans as they are depicted in Turtles Can Flyis that they arrived too late to save the children. This next generation of Kurds has already gone too far into the horror.