A few words about . . . Turtles Can Fly

The film: Turtles Can Fly claims the distinction of being the first movie filmed in Iraq following the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in spring 2003. It appears shot on a fairly low budget, using local Kurdish actors and true-life sets. It is a tough film to evaluate; perhaps the fact that I am still thinking about it more than an hour and a half after watching it means it is a great film. I’m still not sure.

The movie is set in a Kurdish refugee camp on the border between Iraq and Turkey. There are few adults of importance in this story; what few there are exist mainly on the periphery. This is a story about children, presumably all of them orphans, because we never meet a single convincing parental figure here. They are led by a pre-teen nicknamed Satellite (we never learn his real name, but really, for children nicknames are their real names), who directs his crew in scavenging for old radios and disarming the live mines scattered around their camp. He then employs a bit of shrewd deal-making to trade in the stuff for technology which would be unattainable by most of the refugees alone: things like satellite dishes, for instance, which bring in plenty of “forbidden” channels (music videos and such), but also news sources like CNN. The refugees are hearing rumors of an impending American invasion into Iraq, so they eagerly tune in to the news in the hope of being able to glean something from what they watch. No one can understand English, of course, so they depend on Satellite to translate; he, of course, doesn’t know English either, but he makes up something plausible to appease their demands.Speaking of the land mines, most of the time the children are successful in disarming them, but sometimes they are not. Many of the children are without arms or legs from handling the mines. Satellite is one of the few “whole” children among them. But his world is disrupted upon the arrival of three children into the camp. One is a boy without arms who can dismantle the mines with his teeth. Another is his pretty but shy sister. Finally, there is a young child, presumably the baby brother of the group. But this is not his true relationship to them.

This is the basic premise of the story; to reveal additional details would veer us off into spoiler territory. Suffice it to say, the Americans do come as rumored, but it isn’t long before the refugees realize that the armed forces haven’t come specfically to do anything for them. Were they under the wrong impression? That is up to the viewer to decide, ultimately. A number of reviews of this film have encouraged everyone with an opinion on the Iraq war to watch this movie, because it might change your mind. No, there is no political agenda on display here, just a “slice of life,” if you will. I don’t know if the movie changed my mind about Iraq, but it did add some valuable perspective to the situation. I form my own opinions.

A word of caution: as I mentioned earlier, this is a tough film. It’s in Kurdish with English subtitles, so it might be tough for Anglophiles to sit through. It’s almost entirely about children, and bad things happen to children just like they happen to adults, but for some reason it’s always more difficult to watch them suffer. And it doesn’t have a happy ending. There’s plenty of tragedy here, and the film closes on a contemplative note. However, the performances are outstanding; this is probably the best bunch of “kid actors” I’ve ever seen. They really sell the material, and I wonder if that is so because of similar real-life experiences. This is a thought-provoking, heart-breaking film.

Image quality: This is a pretty low-budget affair, but it’s not too bad. Colors are rather muted, but the overall scheme fits with the tone of the movie. Sharpness was fine, but with a bit of edge enhancement thrown in too. A very gray, earthy image, but it’s passable.

Sound quality: There’s just a Dolby 2.0 track on this disc, but the mix really doesn’t contain much that would merit a all-out 5.1 option anyway. This is a mostly dialogue-driven film, but since I can’t understand Kurdish anyway, it didn’t matter too much to me. A few helicopters and jets fly overhead, giving the surround speakers a little something to do, but the mix is fairly muted most of the time. It’s appropriate for the material and the budget, in my opinion.

Overall: Turtles Can Fly is not for everyone. There’s very little depicted violence, but it’s pretty harrowing stuff nonetheless. However, if you consider yourself more of a film lover than a multiplex, popcorn-and-soda flick kind of person (and you know who you are), I recommend giving it a spin.

Rated: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and mature thematic material, all involving children. Child rape is implied, there’s an intense scene involving a small child in a minefield, and a woman chooses to kill her baby and herself. The rating is quite appropriate; the thematic material in this film is too much for young children to handle.

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