REMEMBER THIS NAME: BAHMAN Ghobadi. He is a Kurdish director/writer living in Iran. His third and latest film, Turtles Can Fly, is festooned, and justly so, with tributes and honors from international film festivals, as well as having been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Academy Awards. This past March the Freer Gallery in Washington presented three most impressive films intimately touching on life in Iraq today. Two are the work of Iraqi directors; the third is Ghobadi's Turtles Can Fly. This film is, in short, extraordinary. It merits no other appellation than that of masterpiece, a term I am very reluctant to attach to any film made in recent years anywhere in the world.
The action takes place on the Kurdish/Iraqi border with Turkey, just a rifle shot from a Turkish guard tower, in a refugee camp set by a tiny Kurdish village. The time is one week before the American invasion. But before we see the camp, before even the titles, we see a young girl on the verge of womanhood, walking determinedly to the edge of an outcrop of rocks. Below is a vertiginous drop to a river many, many feet away. The girl pauses, carefully steps out of her light blue scuffs, and walks off into space. Blackout. The film begins.
In the camp, the village elders are calling for "Satellite"--a lanky, nerdy youth with oversized glasses, sundry worn American gear, and backward baseball cap--to bring them a dish so they can get television to learn if war is coming. Satellite knows how to install these dishes. The land around the mountainous border region is strewn with mines and rockets from the Iraq-Iran war. Under Satellite's guidance, the camp's small children are clearing the fields so the villagers can once again farm their land. The performance of the children is painfully, appallingly convincing. It does not seem like any performance you've seen before on a screen. At the same time, the kids are as spontaneous, lively, and funny as kindergarten-age youngsters anywhere in the world.
If you are in any doubt about the kind of life these children live and face, consider the youth, Hirsh Feyssal, whose role, as brother to the girl who commits suicide at the beginning, is a key figure in the film. Hirsh is armless; two small ragged stumps protrude from the sleeves of his black T-shirt. Sit unmoved, if you can, as he bends over a small land mine, one of its nails gripped between his teeth, endeavoring to work it free. He is handsome, his face imprinted with a kind of dignity and grave nobility far beyond his years.
The film is surprisingly, genuinely funny, making an audience burst into roars of laughter. When a television set is finally mounted for the elders and adjusted--with the old men crying out not to turn it to any of the channels forbidden by Saddam, no Western music or women--the very first images that appear, from MTV, are truly shocking out of context. Then CNN and President Bush appear. The elders demand, "What says this Bush?" Satellite's English is limited to "one, two" and "go," but quick-wittedly he offers, "The President says it will rain tomorrow." (An easy enough supposition as it's the heavy rain season.)
Mingled throughout are marks of American culture and mores. The kids all proudly wear some form of American garb and shout out the few words they know of English. The first American soldiers are looked upon with immense excitement. But is their arrival really a source of unmitigated joy? You have to see this remarkable film for yourself, and draw your own conclusions. (No, the film is not any simple-minded anti-American screed. Far from it.)
The second film is Zaman: The Man from the Reeds, directed by Amer Alwan, who left Iraq at 23 in 1983 to study cinema in Paris, and returned only in January 2003 to make this film. It was shot in digital video, the export of film negative to Iraq being forbidden by the Saddam regime. That same regime also confiscated five videos that remain forever missing.
The story line could not be more simple. Zaman, a man in his sixties, living with his wife in the marshy region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, sets out on a quest for medication for her, medicines that, in the end, can only be found in Baghdad. There are vague suggestions that the wife's illness may have come from the toxic material dispersed earlier by Saddam against his own people.
Zaman rows his small boat up the Tigris, passing a wedding party celebrating on brightly decked boats. The first small towns he comes to have none of the medications he seeks. He must go to Baghdad. But the capital, with its traffic, noise, and crowded streets, is as strange a world to Zaman as it is to Western audiences. At a bus stop we see a heavy driver shouting out a wonderful spiel for men to board his bus to go to see some famous Iraqi fighter. His arms swoop back and forth, miming a prizefight. A few vivid moments, and Zaman trudges on to yet another pharmacy. A young attendant at a Catholic hospital, indignant at the corrupt ways of her superior, gives the medication to Zaman, refusing any payment. Ironically, Zaman begs her to thank her superior for his great kindness.
Throughout the film, Iraqi life is shown in all the shadings and nuances of life almost anywhere in the world. Alwan's own politics come in only in the voiceover, praising French President Jacques Chirac's Iraq policy and criticizing George W. Bush; but if you blink and don't understand Arabic, you could easily miss both. The look of the lush green marshlands, with their dwellings made of woven reeds by the water's edge, is very handsome. Apparently, the marshlands are slowly reverting to their natural state.
The third film, About Baghdad, is a documentary made by a collective, InCounter Productions, and follows an exiled Iraqi writer and poet, Sinan Antoon, on a trip he made to Baghdad in July 2003 as he interviews an assortment of Iraqis speaking their minds on the Americans, and on their life under Saddam. One quite astounding sequence shows the monument to the Martyrs (those who fell in the Iraq-Iran war) which apparently has never been seen on American television. Two immense pale blue forms rise out of a desert, rather like two parts of a gigantic eggshell. The open space between the two halves is explained as being where the soul emerges from the body on one side before coming to rest on the other in Heaven.
What remains in your mind from these three films, which are scheduled to play throughout the country through the end of next month, is their reflection of the character of the Iraqi people. The most encouraging, perhaps, are the children of Turtles Can Fly. These youngsters, for the most part all under ten, are singularly resilient, tough, independent, and enterprising. They are not actors. With a good turn from history, they are the kind of children who, in growing to adulthood, may build a strong society and country prepared to take its place in the world. These kids give you hope, and you only trust they will be able to grow up.
Cynthia Grenier writes the Mag Trade column for the Washington Times.