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Film Review and Analysis: Turtles Can Fly

Film Review and Analysis: Turtles Can Fly

By Sonia Nettnin

Bahman Ghobadi’s ''Turtles Can Fly,'' had its final showing at the 40th Chicago International Film Festival on Thursday night. It won the Silver Hugo-Special Jury Prize.

The narrative focuses on the Kurdish children of Kanibo – a village on the border of northern Iraq and Turkey. It is March 2003, just before the US-led invasion of Iraq. Ghobadi shows the final scene, and then the entire film is about the chains of events which lead to the cliff-edge.

One of the main characters, Soran (nicknamed Satellite) is a young man who looks after a large group of children, orphaned by war. For survival, the children deactivate and remove American land mines embedded in mountainous farmland. They carry them in oblong, straw baskets, strapped on their backs. Many of the children are missing arms and legs, such as Hengov, a boy who predicts the future. He uses his mouth to disarm the active mines, which means a millimeter-mistake detonates Hengov’s life. He and his sister, Agrin, take turns carrying their little brother, Riga. They are from Halabcheh (Halabja?), where Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurdish population. Through flashback, viewers see Agrin suffers from vivid memories of war (post-traumatic stress disorder) where/when Iraqi soldiers raped her in a pond of water. Riga may or may not be her child, but Riga (a child created through rape) symbolizes the memory of her horrifying experience.

With the onset of more war, the village seeks information from satellite T.V. Satellite travels with his sidekick, Shirkooh, to the city of Arbil, where they exchange fifteen radios and 500 dinars for a satellite dish. The village governor (Esmaeel) depends on Satellite for the Kurdish translation of CNN’s war coverage. While Satellite flips through the channels, the elders turn away from risqué material. However, Satellite relies on Hengov’s futuristic visions for information on the war. Satellite’s fear is that a wrong prediction will make him lose face in the village. When Hengov predicted a truckload of warheads would explode, Satellite trusts the forecast and acts on it. As a result, the children increase their trust in him.

The scenes in the “warfare junkyard” illustrate the movie’s theme poignantly. It is a landscape littered with empty, tank shells and rusted warheads -- the playground for children after war.

Riga peeps through a stockpile of metal cylinders crying “Boca? (Daddy?) Mummy?” As narrated in the film, they have no water, no electricity and no schools. Most of them have no parents. They sleep in tents, surrounded by barbed wire. Nearby, a Turkish soldier shoots at them from a border watchtower.

The politics of the film show that despite whom world leaders befriend and alienate; and whether countries form alliances, or they become enemies; and how geopolitical agendas change over time; in any conflict or war, children suffer the most. They have no say in their existence, where they live and how they live their lives. Daily life is about a full stomach, a warm bed and their parents. When leaders make choices, children are at their mercy -- children are like human satellites.

I liked Ghobadi’s use of water and shells. Water is a pool of self-reflection, a means of exploration, a place for memories, and a place to end them (tragically). Riga, with his red, rubber boots, drops the turtle in a puddle of mud water. Riga’s boots and the turtle’s shell protect them to a point. Moreover, the children live in harsh conditions, but they make the best of tough circumstances. If the puddle is too large, then swim for red fish. Despite their tragedies, they stick together; they look out for each other, and they share their few belongings. The film’s music reverberates the emotional timbre of their situation.

Agrin is a strong, female character, who cannot escape the tragic memory of the men who violated her. Even though Satellite cares for Agrin, she yearns for freedom from poor, living conditions.

When Satellite injures himself, he cannot “lose face” with the children by crying in front of them. The loss of image is too much for him. Satellite retreats into his tank shell, his dream home moments before the accident. However, the accident gives Shirkooh the opportunity to shine in front of Satellite, when he brings Satellite the statue arm of Saddam Hussein for future fortune.

People in search of a cinematic anti-Bush, pro-Bush political campaign will not find it here. Ghobadi focuses on the effects of war upon children.

In the end, children are the world’s angels…they grow up in the rubble adults leave behind.


Iran submitted “Turtles Can Fly” to the foreign-language category for the 2005 Oscar nominations.


Sonia Nettnin is a freelance writer. Her articles and reviews demonstrate civic journalism, with a focus on international social, economic, humanitarian, gender, and political issues. Media coverage of conflicts from these perspectives develops awareness in public opinion.

Nettnin received her bachelor's degree in English literature and writing. She did master's work in journalism. Moreover, Nettnin approaches her writing from a working woman's perspective, since working began for her at an early age.

She is a poet, a violinist and she studied professional dance. As a writer, the arts are an integral part of her sensibility. Her work has been published in the Palestine Chronicle, Scoop Media and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. She lives in Chicago.

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