Welcome to the nasty, brutish world of Satellite (Soran Ebrahim), a precocious 13-year-old boy who lives in a makeshift village of Kurdish refugees on the Iraq-Turkey border. Satellite, so named because he knows how to install TV antennas, is part father-figure, part mayor in a community that, though overseen from afar by a few elders, seems to be populated almost entirely by lost, dispossessed children.
When he isn't overseeing work details of kids who search the surrounding countryside for land mines, he tutors the community's elders in grappling with the satellite technology they rely on for news -- which, as "Turtles Can Fly" opens, is all about the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq. As Satellite fiddles with a huge new dish, barks out orders to his loyal lieutenants and makes his rounds on his precious, elaborately decorated bike, he hears of another boy who has become famous for making predictions. And he feels threatened when the elders suggest that maybe the newcomer has more information about their precarious future than Satellite can provide.
Avaz Latif plays the mysterious refugee child Agrin with breathtaking fierceness and power in Bahman Ghobadi's Kurdish drama.
Soon enough, Satellite meets the mysterious prognosticator, an armless boy named Henkov (Hiresh Faysal Rahman), who is traveling with his beautiful sister, Agrin (Avaz Latif), and their baby brother. Satellite quickly falls for the prickly, beautiful Agrin and develops a grudging respect for Henkov, who indeed does seem to have the power of second sight. As events come to a climax -- as the source of Agrin's simmering grief and rage becomes clear, as Henkov's visions come to pass, as the mines continue to do their random dirty work, and as U.S. helicopters come storming overhead -- Satellite's world becomes a microcosm for the experience of refugees everywhere. It's a world that, paralyzed by despair but propelled by desperation, spins on an entirely different axis than the rest of the globe.
Does anyone make sadder movies than Bahman Ghobadi? Since his debut in 2000 with "A Time for Drunken Horses," the 36-year-old Iranian director has become something of a cinematic Cassandra of the Kurdish refugees, and he conveys that community's misery without a trace of self-pity or excess. It's difficult to think of a filmmaker working today who is as committed to mastering the art of pure despair.
And the despair in "Turtles Can Fly" is, if anything, pure. In this wrenching story, things start off so badly and end so much worse that "A Time for Drunken Horses," which also chronicled the tribulations of children, and "Marooned in Iraq," about a group of musicians caught on the Iran-Iraq border, look like heartwarming comedies by comparison. Despite its fanciful title, "Turtles Can Fly" leads viewers into a slough of despond, one in which not just hope is strangled but virtually any possibility for simple human kindness.
With its scenes of kids narrowly skirting death on the minefields, scraping out an existence amid the detritus of war and being robbed of a childhood that was apparently never their birthright to begin with, "Turtles Can Fly" is often agonizing to watch. But somehow Ghobadi has created something as exquisite as it is excruciating. In the tradition of his countrymen Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, he works brilliantly with children, never succumbing to sentimentality in the service of conveying their fatalistic courage, which often takes the form of wry humor. With its stark backdrop of military wreckage, "Turtles Can Fly" also resembles the work of such great Italian neorealists as Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica. Satellite is a character worthy of those masters, a survivor possessed of charisma, wit and wisdom beyond his years. (No 13-year-old should know that chemical weapons smell of garlic and grass.)
By far the most indelible character in "Turtles Can Fly," though, is the mysterious Agrin, whom Latif plays with breathtaking fierceness and power. In Agrin, Ghobadi has created one of the most haunting, unsettling and uncompromising portraits of psychic damage in recent memory, one that is sure to stay with viewers long after her fate is decided. It bears noting that all of the actors in "Turtles Can Fly" are nonprofessionals, and all bring electrifying authenticity and presence to their roles.
With its ancient, unforgiving setting and its themes of prophecy, sacrifice, suffering and salvation, "Turtles Can Fly" would be biblical in its emotional scope if it weren't for the conspicuous absence of faith. Although his stories are firmly rooted in recent history, Ghobadi's sensibility transcends the ebb and tide of politics. His characters are simply the latest of generations of Kurds whose history has been mired in mendacity and betrayal. When American helicopters finally reach Satellite's town, it's difficult to discern whether they're being greeted with hope or dread. "They all lie," one character wearily observes in "Turtles Can Fly." "They lie and fill their pockets."
Turtles Can Fly (98 minutes, in Kurdish with subtitles, at Landmark Bethesda Row and E Street) is not rated. It contains disturbing images of violence and death.