The opening moments of Bahman Ghobadi's Turtles Can Fly leave you with no misunderstanding about the insurmountable despair to follow: A stone-faced little girl, perched on a cliff above a rocky canyon, contemplates her situation for a long moment, then steps off the edge into the fatal abyss.
This is not a dream -- or if it is, then it's a nightmare. In Turtles Can Fly (the title alone prepares you for either a miracle or a tragedy) Ghobadi, an Iranian Kurd who makes films in Tehran, sets his story in a Kurdish village between Iran and Turkey on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq. His protagonists are mostly children, and for them, the U.S.A. represents popular culture, freedom and a boundless future.
Turtles Can Fly revolves around the bespectacled Soran Ebrahim, a compassionate young teen-ager who looks unflinchingly toward a better future, and whom everyone calls Satellite because of his technological wizardry. The people of his village are hungry for information, and their wobbly TV antennae don't pull down much of a signal. So Satellite, a one-boy rescue mission whose motto is "at your service," goes to the nearest big town to trade a bunch of old radios and some fast-depreciating dinars for a satellite dish.
For a while, Turtles Can Fly seems to about this plucky lad's efforts to organize the kids of the village into an army of socially conscious saviors. But soon he meets Agrin, whose spirits are not so high. An orphaned Iraqi Kurdish refugee, fleeing after a slaughter in her village, she's self-sufficient to the point of arrogance, and she won't let anything stand in her way. She arrives at Satellite's village with two other children in tow: her brother, who has no arms, and a terrified 2-year-old who's ended up in their charge. From the moment she and Satellite meet, her desolation slowly permeates the drama.
Ghobadi maintains a relatively balanced point of view in exploring the American presence in Iraq. He allows us to witness the unfolding of history and the fickle emotions that go with it. His young actors, certainly all non-professional, are remarkable, although you have to wonder how a director could put children through such horrors. But then you realize they've probably seen it all for real, so perhaps making art of it is a liberating catharsis.
As with so much Iranian cinema that we see in the West, Turtles Can Fly is deeply moving and authentic, yet still rife with effective metaphor and irony. Satellite tells his villagers that they need to learn words like "OK" and "hello" for when the Americans come, and when they ask him about America, he rattles off a series of pop-cult icons ("Titanic, San Francisco, Bruce Lee"). He's the child of the future -- ambitious, generous, hopeful -- until the future catches up with him, as it has a way of doing. In Kurdish, with subtitles.