When adult men pick up the camera in the Middle East, it is usually to point it at children. It is very hard in these strict countries to film an adult while also meditating on political themes. An adult usually has more power in their life. They are able to choose what to do in a given situation and how to feel about a certain idea. But a child is thrust into a given situation already in motion. The children in this film did not choose to be born Kurds, to have no arms or to be in the refugee camp. These factors are all factors outside of their control. It isn’t until they mature do they realize that the actions they do affect who they are.
The setting of Turtles Can Fly is what makes this movie unique. It is set in a refugee camp on the border of Turkey and Iraq. The population in this camp are made up of a people who no country around this area officially recognize as an ethnic group. They are called the Kurds and technically where they are is where their homeland is supposed to be. But Turkey and Iraq both don’t care to give up their land in order to make a bullied group their own governing body. But both of the countries also don’t want to shoulder the responsibility of taking care of them. So they are stuck in a perpetual limbo. This limbo is manifested here. On the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Kurds have nothing to do but wait. Will the United States come to their aid? Will they force Iraq and Turkey have a serious conversation about dividing their country? The anticipation to these answers is what gives this movie a nervous energy. This helped by the protagonist of the movie. A young know it all, Satellite is the leader of a small gang of refugee children. He is constantly talking and instantly in command of various harebrained schemes he has cooking up. He is incredibly smart and able to adapt to any given situation. He is able to understand English, a valuable skill in a soon to be Americanized foreign country. After he convinces the town elders to buy a satellite (he is a master installer of these huge satellites, that is how he gets his name), he is invited to translate for him. This is a task a normal person would be a little nervous about, but not Satellite. Instead he becomes impatient with them and eventually tells them off. But Satellite’s world is shaken when he sees a tragically beautiful young girl carrying around an infant. Her and her older brother have recently come from another refugee camp to see if they can cross the border. Her older brother is quiet, but soon gets the reputation of a prophet with an uncanny knack for disarming mines. His arms are missing, but that doesn’t seem to hinder his abilities to do anything. He loves the infant that his sister is carrying but she does not. Satellite soon entangles himself in this family dynamic becoming at turns offended and in awe of the arm less brother and in love with the young girl. But these two seem to be hiding something that is darker than anything Satellite has ever seen.
The director of this film shoots the story as a matter of fact. There are no moralizing tales, no fancy shots and no political leanings. This makes the impact of these maimed and maligned children all the more rough for the viewer. Although most of these characters have accepted their fate, you as a viewer hope there are some fairy tale endings at the end of the film. Of course if there was, then the film would lose all of its realist cred. Instead it seems to be business as usual even if a monumental activity is taking shape in the background. At one point Satellite is lying down in a small room, injured. He is upset and angry at his situation. One of his young children henchmen comes by to cheer him up. He brings a present to Satellite. It is the raised arm of the Saddam Hussein statue that was toppled by the incoming Americans. He was able to trade an American for the arm, easily. Although Satellite is aware of the importance of the statue and expresses a sense of wonder at the site of a broken off statue arm, he is able to forget the present a moment later when something else comes up. This day matters to them, but at the same time you still have to worry about what you worrying about two days ago. It is only in retrospect that Satellite will remember the importance of that arm completely.
I really respected this movie for giving me a perspective, I normally wouldn’t get from my American-centric lifestyle. I resisted watching this movie for a long time, but I am glad I finally forced myself to do it. But I probably won’t watch it again. It was a downer, for sure.