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Forbidden games

A new Kurdish film shows the Iraq War through the eyes of precocious children


Bahman Ghobadi's extraordinary Turtles Can Fly, a film set in Iraqi Kurdistan at the opening of the current U.S.-Iraq war, is the first major work of cinematic art produced by the ongoing conflict, and it may end up the most enduring. Yet while the Iraqi-Iranian production offers viewers the unique opportunity of peering inside Iraq via film, it reminded me of a similar, real-life opportunity I regrettably missed three years ago. In January 2002, I was packing my bags for a trip to Iran when George Bush, in his televised State of the Union address, first applied the idiotic term "axis of evil" to Iran, Iraq and North Korea. The Iran I landed in two days later felt, not surprisingly, a bit edgier than it had been on previous trips. Though I offered my hosts what I thought was a great new slogan for the Iranian film industry--"Kiss My Axis" --their smiles seemed to be betray a noticeable uneasiness.

A few days into the film festival I was attending, Bahman Ghobadi came down from the mountains along the Iran-Iraq border bearing footage from the film he was shooting. The young Kurd was bearded and, behind his ready smile, looked tired; I think he may have driven all night. A chador-clad film editor showed the footage to myself and a representative of the Cannes Film Festival (which eventually accepted the film) as Ghobadi waited. Afterward, he took me aside and urged me to visit him on location, offering to slip me across the border into Saddam's Iraq.

I dearly wanted to go, and soon afterward set off on a trip to Iranian Azerbaijan that I thought might pave the way for an excursion to Kurdistan. But time ran out and the rest of my stay was spent in Tehran. It occurred to me only on seeing Ghobadi's latest that I missed not only some guaranteed adrenaline rushes but also a chance to follow the director on the geographic trajectory that connects his first three features--a journey across the mountains, from Iran to Iraq.

Ghobadi's artistic identity is, in effect, far more Kurdish than Iranian, and the cultural entity known as Kurdistan of course spans Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. Given the region's recent convulsions, it is perhaps no surprise that his cinematic itinerary would move from familiarity toward crisis: His first film, the globally acclaimed A Time for Drunken Horses (2000), which concerns child smugglers, ventures up the steep mountains of western Iran and a very short distance into Iraq. Songs of My Fatherland (2002, the film he previewed for me in Tehran) starts in Iran and ends--as its U.S. title, the ever more resonant Marooned in Iraq, suggests--squarely in Iraq.

Continuing the westward migration, Turtles Can Fly is set entirely in Iraq, but in the part of Kurdistan that borders not Iran but Turkey (I don't know what it portends for Ghobadi's future projects, but this film's glances toward Turkey seem significant). The specificity of this setting is important to Ghobadi's work in various senses, but so is its metaphoric opposite. Because as solidly and meaningfully planted in place and time as Turtles is, it also seems to be located elsewhere, in the deep reaches of the Kurdish soul.

Like the creature in its title, the film is amphibious, at home both in a world we know from maps and news reports, and another that appears in dreams, myths and poetry. This curious duality makes Turtles difficult to describe in conventional terms. It also makes it the most mesmerizing and haunting foreign film I've seen so far this year.

As so often is the case in the films of Abbas Kiarostami (whose The Wind Will Carry Us Ghobadi worked on), the landscapes in Turtles are dominated by hills. Within minutes of the film's opening, we see that the human uses of the hills in its remote locale are divided in two, defined by two groups of kids. One group, many of whom are maimed or missing limbs, comb the terrain looking for unexploded landmines to sell. The other group busies itself situating TV antennas at the hill's crest, attempting to bring local refugees news of the impending war.

Not only do these two groups of kids mirror each other, but at the center of both is a threesome that (as in A Time for Drunken Horses) functions as a surrogate family. The antenna-mounting group is dominated by a lanky, mouthy teenager nicknamed Satellite (Soran Ebrahim), whose sidekicks are the crippled Pashow (Saddam Hossein Feysal) and little Shirkooh (Ajil Zibari). The landmine group is led by an armless orphan named Hengov (Hiresh Feysal Rahman) and his sad-eyed sister Argin (Avaz Latif); their group also includes Riga (Abdol Rahman Karim), a cross-eyed toddler of mysterious provenance.

Besides the traumatized refugee status they share, the two threesomes are also connected, one might say, by love and prophecy. Satellite seems smitten by Argin from the moment he sees her, and he pursues her--gallantly, discreetly--to the edge of a spring into which he dives looking for red fish to offer as gifts. Ophelia-like Argin, though, almost seems to look through Satellite to the pool itself, as a place where she might drown her sorrows.

Satellite is drawn to her brother for other reasons. Though the two boys get into a fight almost as soon as we meet them--a scrape the armless Hengov wins with a well-aimed head butt--Satellite is intrigued when he learns that Hengov can predict the future. And therein lies one of the film's sharpest ironies. For as much as Satellite's power is based on his ability to bring the Kurdish refugees electronic news from the world beyond, it turns out that the boy with the gift--or, as he himself sees it, the curse--of prophecy might be the more accurate window into the future.

Subtle mirrorings such as television/prophecy permeate the film and coax us toward its idiomatic way with meaning. When Satellite sets up a TV for the refugees' Kurdish elders, they order that he avoid the "forbidden channels"--those purveying decadent Western intrusions like sex, violence and MTV. Yet the CNN channel he ultimately locates is incomprehensible to them due to the language barrier, which Satellite (who affects rudimentary Americanisms of the "Hello, mister!" variety) can only pretend to penetrate.

The distinction between these upright traditional elders and the culture they regard as haram ("forbidden") is, in context, highly resonant. Given that the Kurds were gassed and otherwise brutalized by Saddam, his name is, as you might anticipate, cursed and his fall welcomed. But where you might expect jubilation, there is only wariness and caution. What will the advent of the Americans mean--liberation or a new form of subjugation? Though these questions are never asked directly, they envelope the film's actions and landscapes like a fine mist.

This political dimension, indeed, is so oblique that it indirectly indicates one of the film's most unusual virtues: Given the extreme topicality of the situation it dramatizes, Turtles is almost astonishingly non-rhetorical. Many filmmakers, given a similarly volatile subject, would be hard pressed to avoid using their platform to make a statement: about their people's suffering, about political rights and wrongs, about the direction of history's implacable march.

Ghobadi doesn't avoid such issues entirely so much as he buries them in an approach that might be called neo-mythological. And this is new in his work. The brilliance of their execution notwithstanding, his first two features suggested an earnest ethnography, with narratives and visual strategies crafted to illustrate the current Kurdish situation in relatively straightforward fashion. Though powerful on its own terms, this uni-dimensionality noticeably distinguished Ghobadi from other Iranian filmmakers, whose work derives its richness of meaning from the multidimensionality of Persian art and literature.

Turtles has a greater dimensionality, one that no doubt will remind Westerners of certain familiar models. In its bemused view of war's explosive absurdities, you can catch echoes of everything from Samuel Beckett to Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (a fictional milieu in which the enterprising Satellite would be right at home) to the Fellini-esque phantasmagorias of numerous films that issued from the Balkan peninsula following the collapse of Yugoslavia. Yet, knowing Ghobadi, I would guess that the genius of his new film owes not to any of these sources but, rather, to Kurdish folkloric tradition and the unfolding of his own poetic gifts.

There is, without question, a strikingly poetic sensibility at work here. While Turtles remains grounded (as so many Iranian films do) in the factualness of documentary, its imaginative vision takes us to a place of eternal elementals, where earth (hillsides), air (antennas), water (springs) and fire (from cannon or hearth) precede, condition and ultimately survive strutting transients like Saddam and Bush. In this place, one group of young people struggles upward, toward survival and the future, while another is pulled inexorably downward toward the past and oblivion. In this perplexing dual movement you have "the tale of the tribe," a conjunction of the ephemeral and the eternal, and an ancient awareness of the tragic shadow of every step forward.

Turtles Can Fly is, also, a film of exquisite formal beauty and expressiveness, one made all the more remarkable in having been shot in war-torn Iraq. Its hard-won achievements mark Bahman Ghobadi as a filmmaker rapidly emerging as one of the cinema's newest masters, one whose invitations to journey--over the mountains, into Iraq, wherever--deserve to be heeded.

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