"Turtles Can Fly," directed by Bahman Ghobadi, 2004
“All wars, just or unjust, disastrous or victorious, are waged against the child.” Eglantyne Jebb (founder of Save the Children)
Kurdistan is not the type of country that you will find on a map; it is something else, something far more ethereal: a country that exists only in dreams and aspirations, and, in particular, the dreams and aspirations of the Kurdish people.
History has been cruel to the Kurds; not only is their dreamt-of homeland split by the borders of 5 different countries, but the countries which have claimed various parts of Kurdistan – Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Armenia – all have (or have had in the past) appalling human rights’ records. The consequence of this for the Kurdish people has been the duel tragedy of statelessness and repression – particularly in Iraq where the Kurdish people were notoriously gassed by Saddam Hussein during the civil war which took place in the 1980s.
Yet amongst all this repression, the Kurdish people are slowly finding ways of communicating their plight to the outside world: members of their Diaspora have attracted some attention (though not nearly enough) through campaigning, while artists like Bahman Ghobadi (the director of Turtles Can Fly) are becoming adept tellers of the stateless people’s tales. Ghobadi lives in Iran but “Turtles Can Fly” itself is set in Iraq or, more precisely, in a Kurdish refugee camp on the border of Iraq and Turkey. For the inhabitants of this refugee camp life is dominated by war: not only the horrors of past wars with Saddam Hussein, but also the anticipation of the impending US invasion of Iraq.
While the adults of the camp anxiously scan satellite TV for news of the invasion, the refugee camp’s children (who are the central characters in the story) go about their daily routine, which for most of them involves collecting landmines from nearby fields. The landmines are a source of income for the kids and their families, but – as you would expect – the consequences of collecting them are potentially gruesome, and several of the camp children live their lives impeded by missing limbs.
Yet somehow, despite this, and despite the mud, fear and barbed wire, the refugee camp kids maintain the optimism and humour of youth. And this is the strength, and beauty, of Ghobadi’s work: the way that he is able to weave the comedy of the children’s day-to-day lives through the much thicker threads of tragedy that surround them. In doing this, Ghobadi makes the child heroes of Turtles Can Fly painfully real – people who we can empathise with, people who are no longer just the collateral damage of war in far off lands.
Not only does this make Turtles Can Fly a very powerful movie to watch, but it also makes it a challenging one when set amongst the context of the US invasion of Iraq.
If you, like me, opposed the US invasion of Iraq you will find Turtles Can Fly a challenge to your beliefs as it shows the way that the Kurdish people viewed the Americans as liberators – saviours even – from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. This was a reminder to me personally of the thing that made me most uncomfortable about my own opposition to the invasion: the fact that by arguing against invasion, I was – in effect – also arguing for the possible continuation of Hussein’s regime. Personally, I never believed that Hussein was a threat to the West, but he was certainly a threat to his own people, and leaving him in place meant a continuation of this threat. Which was a very troubling thought unless you could provide an alternative to invasion; an alternative which either removed him from power or put an end to his tyranny. Ultimately, I did still oppose the invasion, in part because I could see such an alternative: human rights inspections to accompany the weapons inspections, along with continued pressure to force Saddam to open up political space. (I’ll discuss this idea in detail in a later post – in the meantime if you want a fuller explanation of this school of thought, Mary Kaldor on Open Democracy does a great job.)
On the other hand, if you supported the invasion of Iraq on genuine humanitarian grounds (like the English writers Nick Cohen and Johann Hari or the bloggers at Harry’s place) you will also find much in Turtles Can Fly to challenge your support of the war (that is, if it isn’t already challenged by the current quagmire and body-counts). This is because, in the film, when the US invasion finally does happen, the indifference of the US soldiers to the plight of the Kurdish people is plain to see. In the final scenes of the movie, as the soldiers advance across Kurdish Iraq, the Kurds are absolutely invisible to them. And for the viewer, who has by now been totally sucked into the tragedy of the children’s lives, this comes as an emotional slap in the face.
It also serves as a powerful reminder of one of the main reasons for opposing the war: the fact that the neo-cons never, ever, really gave a shit about the Iraqi people, or about human rights. This, of course, was hardly a secret, you only had to look at members of the Bush administration’s track record to see that the only things that motivated them were self interest and the quest for power (see for example Wolfowitz cuddling up to Suharto or Rumsfeld’s 1980s support of Saddam). Hardly a secret but, also, an important point because, in war, motives are usually reflected in outcomes. And in my mind there is a pretty clear correlation between the neo-cons’ lack of concern for the Iraqi people and the current disastrous mess that exists in Iraq at present.
So, for supporters of the invasion, Turtles Can Fly offers no relief either. Instead, at its end, the movie only serves as a painful reminder, both to those who supported the war and to those who opposed it, that another bloody chapter is now being written in the tragic book of Iraq. Which is something that should concern us all; not only because this new chapter seems like it may continue for the foreseeable future but also because – as Ghobadi shows throughout the movie – the victims of the ongoing war are real people, like you and me.