The story takes place in a border village of Iraqi Kurdistan shortly before the US invasion. A teenage boy named Kaak Mahwareh (meaning ‘brother satellite’ in Kurdish) is spearheading a group of kids in charge of collecting mines from farmlands previously used as mine fields during the war. With his rather limited technological knowledge he is also capable of installing satellite dishes for the people in the village, which earns him the name ‘satellite’. Kaak Mahwareh is an arrogant liar and throughout the film is seen boasting and giving orders. In one scene, he falsely translates George Bush’s speech, which is being broadcast from satellite channels for the villagers.
In contrast to him, there is another teenage boy who has lost both his arms in the war. Unlike ‘the satellite’, he is quiet and introverted but is capable of making predictions, with many future events taking shape in his mind before actually happening. Similarly silent and secretive is his little sister, although there is a huge unrest and struggle going on inside her over her own mortality. After being raped by a Ba’athist soldier she is left the unwanted mother of a rape child. Throughout the film she struggles with the idea of killing herself and her unwanted child.
After Zamani Bara-ye Masti Asb-ha/A Time for Drunken Horses (2000) and Songs from My Motherland, Turtles Can Fly is Bahman Ghobadi’s third feature-length film about Kurdistan and the Kurdish people. A noticeable point in Ghobadi’s films is that family does not have the usual meaning or form that it has in melodramas. That is to say family, as a focal point of love comprising a man and a woman or a father and a mother along with children, does not have any place in Ghobadi’s films because he makes films about a society that has lost its balance and composure and is dealing with social calamities caused by war, violence and poverty. Here I will highlight some of the more important characteristics of Ghobadi’s films, with an emphasis on his latest film:
The ethnographical elements
Ghobadi is the only Iranian film-maker who has specifically made all his short, long and documentary films about the Kurdistan region and its people (except No One Knows About Persian Cats  which takes place in Tehran). This is true even in his roles as assistant director and actor as he has taken part in Abbas Kiarostami’s film Baad Ma ra Khahad Bord/The Wind Will Carry Us (2000) and Samira Makhmalbaf’s Takht-e-Siah/Blackboards (2000), both of which are set in Kurdistan. His films, irrespective of their technical strengths and weaknesses, have now become an important source of information and visual documents on Kurdistan and its related issues as there are strong ethnographical aspects to them that could be of use to researchers and (especially) anthropologists. The fact that Ghobadi himself is from Kurdistan, and his close ties and familiarity with the geography, culture, language, customs and traditions, as well as the Kurdish people’s temperament, brings a certain uniqueness to his films. It is the main reason they are made more credible and believable to the audience.
The presence of some familiar and chief elements of ‘modern Iranian cinema’ such as ‘documentarism’, employing amateur or non-professional actors, and exoticness in Ghobadi’s films has ensured their success at international film festivals. Although in terms of employing the above elements, Ghobadi’s film reflects the ongoing trend in today’s Iranian art cinema, it still has certain characteristics that make it different from the rest. The most important of those are the classical style of storytelling, attention to the dramatic structure and its strong emotional quality, which make the film easier for the ordinary audience to understand and has increased its ability to influence the audience.
Children in Ghobadi’s films
The children in Ghobadi’s films are usually those who have lost their parents at a very early age and are forced to struggle for survival under harsh and inhumane conditions. In the film A Time for Drunken Horses, a young boy is responsible for taking care of his sisters as well as his mentally retarded brother. In Turtles Can Fly, the family consists of a brother and a sister along with an illegitimate child, but even that gradually falls apart and at the end of the film there is only an armless boy left. The children in Ghobadi’s films are deprived of the right to be kids and live in a child’s world. Like the children in A Time for Drunken Horses, they must cooperate with smugglers to make ends meet, and like the children in Turtles Can Fly, they put their lives on the line to remove landmines from farming lands. They do not even have time to for a basic education because, as ‘brother satellite’ points out, now is the time for war, and kids must take up arms and fight to defend their homeland.
Ghobadi has an incredible ability to make children and ordinary (amateur) people act. Like in all his feature-length films, he has again decided to employ amateur children and adults instead of using professional actors, and the kids in Turtles Can Fly exhibit outstanding and memorable performances. The image of limbless children carrying baskets full of landmines is a shocking one that can only be found in documentary films with actual people in them. The technique of using the armless boy’s predictions in this film is quite ingenious and dramatic and is among the positive points of Ghobadi’s style.
Despite the bitter and tragic atmosphere in Ghobadi’s films, they still have a subtle comedy to them. In Turtles Can Fly, the way the satellite TV programs are presented and the religious reactions of the Kurdish villagers to their content and form create a comic situation. In one scene, one of the owners of a satellite system begs ‘brother satellite’ to block the forbidden channels so they can not be received by anyone, which is an explicit reference to the restriction of modern and independent media and the news censorship in today’s Iran. In addition, the sudden appearance of George Bush on the TV screen and hearing his simplistic and empty promises about saving Iraq and its future has added to the intensity of this comedy. However, in the second half, the film takes a very bitter and tragic tone. The incessant and hopeless attempts of the young girl to commit suicide and kill her innocent baby, ‘the satellite’ stepping over a landmine and getting wounded, and eventually the painful death of the little girl and her baby are the culminating points of this tragicomedy.