Ghobadi has made the first film to come out of
post-war Iraq – about children who survive by
collecting mines, sometimes with their teeth. He
talks to SF Said
Turtles Can Fly happens to be the first film to come
out of post-war Iraq – but even if it wasn't, it
would still be extraordinary. Forget the explosive
context, the searing topicality: it's about the
human spirit – our power to survive, and the limits
to that power.
It's made by Bahman Ghobadi, director of A Time for
Drunken Horses. This was one of the most emotionally
compelling films of recent years, telling the true
story of children who work as human mules, smuggling
contraband over the Iran-Iraq border.
Like that film, Turtles Can Fly is about children in
conditions of unimaginable danger. This time,
they're Iraqi Kurds, living through the period
around the Iraq war and the fall of Saddam Hussein.
The adults in their world are either dead or
unreliable. To survive, they clear up unexploded
landmines and sell them on the black market. Some
lose limbs doing it; some don't survive. Yet they
show such deep resources of courage, humour and
tenacity that you cannot but be touched.
"I come from a land full of untold stories," says
Ghobadi, 36. "It's a land of exceptional events.
There is always something happening - so many
stories, sometimes I can hardly breathe."
The film centres on three children: a young
entrepreneur nicknamed Satellite, a girl he falls in
love with, and her brother. The brother and sister
are orphaned refugees from Halabjah (the Kurdish
town Saddam Hussein's forces attacked with chemical
weapons in 1988). The boy has lost both his arms
sweeping minefields, and now uses his teeth to pick
them up instead.
Ghobadi shows us the consequences of conflict - not
on the grand geopolitical stage, but at the level of
ordinary people's lives. He shows us images we might
prefer not to see, but which are commonplace in
today's Iraq. Indeed, the film started out as a
"Two weeks after Saddam's fall," he says, "I went to
Iraq with a small camera, just for my own use. And I
was recording all these kids with no arms or legs,
all the mines, the arms bazaar. When I came back to
Teheran, I wanted to write a story that would take
me to those places."
Turtles Can Fly is that story. It's fiction, but the
children who act in it are portraying their own
lives. The boy with no arms really has swept
minefields for a living.
"They have experienced it," says Ghobadi. "You can't
believe it, but there are more than 30,000 kids like
him in Iraq. Often they cannot cope. He was one of
the few who somehow had the fighting instinct in
Yet there is light amid this darkness. There's a
wicked sense of humour in the film, deep compassion,
and above all, love. Satellite's courtship of the
girl is utterly charming - all the more for his
gallows-black gag that he wants to marry a girl from
Halabjah because it means he won't have any
"This is Kurdish life," says the director. "This is
how the people are. They express their love; they
laugh a lot. So when I wanted to reflect what was
going on in Iraq, I had to bring a sense of humour
into it, because this is how the Kurds survive their
Ghobadi's films reflect his own experiences. An
Iranian Kurd, he grew up in a small town near the
Iraqi border. Many members of his family perished
during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
"As a child, I thought of it as a nightmare," he
says, "but it was reality. And now it's coming out
in my films, because other children are living it
too. It's like taking something out of your chest,
and putting it on film."
Despite a history of demands for independence, Kurds
have never had their own state. Kurdistan
encompasses parts of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.
Yet Kurds conceive of it as one country, and to
Ghobadi, Turtles Can Fly is set in that country.
"I'm a Kurd, that's where I'm from," Ghobadi says.
"Somebody drew a line on a map, but most of my
family and friends live in Iraqi Kurdistan. When I
go there, I don't feel I'm in a foreign land. I feel
He became a filmmaker to give voice to such
feelings. He was lucky to come of age at a time when
Iranian cinema could nurture a wide range of
talents. He assisted the likes of Abbas Kiarostami
and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and acted in Samira
Yet his films are not typical of Iranian cinema.
They have a naked emotional rawness that touches
nerves without feeling exploitative or sentimental.
They also have very clear, direct narratives.
Ghobadi once told an interviewer that he didn't want
"a single frame" of his work to be like a Kiarostami
film. He's been successful on his own terms, and
that fact is encouraging others, especially the
young people who work with him.
"I get attached to them," he says. "The boy in A
Time for Drunken Horses became my assistant on my
last film. In two months, he's going to direct his
first feature. The boy who plays Satellite will be
his assistant. Probably he'll make films too, later
on. But sometimes I doubt. I'm helping a few kids -
but there are 30 million people who need help. What
can a filmmaker do?"