It's March 2003, a few days before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and the inhabitants of a refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan are anxious to know when the Americans are coming. They pool all of their radios together to trade for a satellite dish and ask a teenage tech whiz called Satellite to hook it up to a TV so the elders can watch the news. When the boy flips to Fox News, President Bush is on the screen, announcing the start of the war. But there are some things even the most modern technology can't surmount. "What is he saying?" one man asks. Satellite, whose grasp of English stretches to "Hello," stares intently at the screen, as if trying to find just the right words. "He says it's going to rain," the boy replies.
Such wry scenes come thick and fast in the first half of Turtles Can Fly, the third feature from Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi, which started its Europe-wide release in Britain last week. It's his funniest film yet, which is surprising, given that it is populated by children who have lost limbs to the land mines that plague the region. "There's an Iranian expression that says, You can cut off a man's head with cotton," says Ghobadi, 36. "So this is our cotton, this sense of humor. I tried to soften the grief and the sadness because if I told you everything that was sad, nobody could watch the film."
At first, Satellite (delightfully played by Soran Ebrahim) is a relatively cheerful friend, protector and boss to a group of orphaned children who collect mines to sell back to U.S. forces. But then three new children join them, fleeing from the Iraqi troops who killed their parents and torched their home: Henkov (Hirsh Feyssal), a boy with no arms who can predict the future; his suicidal sister Agrin (Avaz Latif); and a blind baby who is either their brother or Agrin's son. Satellite falls for Agrin, but she can't return his affections. Cold, broken and without hope, she is an ever-present reminder of the brutalities of war. By the time the American troops march through the village, Satellite's unbridled optimism is already shriveled and dead. "We have to think about those who suffer and bring them to the forefront," says Ghobadi. "In my film, I say that death is better than life, because we are forced to live with this constant, permanent destruction."
Born in Baneh, in Iranian Kurdistan, and now living in Tehran, Ghobadi has always made films that cut deep. His first feature, 2000's A Time for Drunken Horses, follows a young Kurdish boy who smuggles goods across the border between Iran and Iraq to feed his four siblings. He was back two years later with Marooned in Iraq, about two brothers who follow their father on a journey from Iran to Iraq to help a woman they haven't seen in 23 years. To many Europeans, these films were a heart-wrenching introduction to Kurdish cinema and, with critical support, they won awards at festivals from Cannes to Chicago. Now he has made Turtles Can Fly the name refers to the freedom that comes with death which already has a place in cinema history as the first feature shot in post-Saddam Iraq to be released. "We had 30 bodyguards, land-mine experts, and the Kurdish opposition to Iraq protecting us," Ghobadi says. Billed as an Iraq-Iran co-production, the film is Iran's entry for the Foreign Language Film Oscar.
Despite his heavy concentration on the lives of the Kurds, Ghobadi insists he's not a political filmmaker. "I didn't set out to be political, but my land is politicized, and war is part of our daily dialogues and conversations," he says. "I don't make a film so you can bring your popcorn and just enjoy yourself. But I would love the conditions and the colors of my country to change so I can make colorful, joyful films."
That shift does not seem imminent. Driven as much by a sense of duty as the desire to create art, Ghobadi hopes to eventually turn out two films a year. And so he has already begun work on a "social comedy" directed by Ayoub Ahmadi, the lead in A Time for Drunken Horses. Ghobadi will produce and write the film, his prolific pace growing out of a belief that film can change the world even if it kills him. "In the last five years, the hardships I have witnessed have pushed me on more than three occasions to try to commit suicide," he says. "But on the other hand, I have no other option than to continue doing this. Maybe one day a result will come out. We have to have hope."