adrin neatrour writes – Intruders in Paradise: Ghobadi’s film uses a milieu and a state of affairs that has become familiar from TV news coverage of Africa and the Middle East: the tent cities of refugees. Ghobadi shows the wounds of his people, but what he points to are the subtle but no less damaging dislocations of the psyche. As the title implies Turtles Can Fly is a fable.
Turtles Can Fly – Bahman Ghobadi – 2004 – Iran – Iraq – France: Soran Ebrahim; Avaz Latif
Intruders in Paradise
To probe and tease out the object of his concern Ghobadi’s film uses a milieu and a state of affairs that has become familiar from TV news coverage of Africa and the Middle East: the tent cities of refugees. These have become such a normalised backdrop to the pictures from disaster and war zones that I for one haven’t given them real thought. I see the familiar images of serried rows of tents and food doled out from the back of trucks. Focusing on the manifest physical conditions that characterise the camps, the compression, the unemployment, the lack of infrastructure and amenities, the reliance on food and medical aid etc , I think that at least these people have shelter and food: they’re surviving. What I haven’t thought through are the deeper, less apparent but no less real psychic costs of the refugee camps: the consequences of smashing most of the normative linkages that give shape to people’s lives. Except in paradise and hell we exist in and through time.
Ghobadi’s film takes place at a very specific moment: 2003 – three weeks before the US invasion of Iraq. Ghobadi as a Kurd with compassion for his people has produced his film from within the people – a refugee camp on the mountainous Iranian border area of Iraq. Turtles Can Fly is a drama played out in a real camp with the inhabitants in the cast. The film has a core documentary aspect which in itself gives the film authenticity in relation to the hard and harsh conditions which people endure. But it is not these conditions per se, the privations and the risks they engender that are Ghobadi’s main concern here – graphically illustrated as they are. Turtles Can Fly is about what happens when a people’s relationship with time is broken. It is a statement about living in alienating timelessness: about the consequences of lives lived outside the past, outside history and without a sense of the future. Lives in which all the landmarks physical and psychic are all in an eternal present – in a way a sort of paradise. Ghobadi shows the open wounds of his people, but does so with dignity and without indulgence. What he points to are the subtle but no less damaging dislocations of the psyche. As the title implies Turtles Can Fly is a fable.
The refugee camp is a deterritorialised location – wherever it is – Dafur, Jordan, or in this case Kurdistan where the people have fled from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The deterritorialisaton is not just dislocation of place, of spacial and personal relationships. The camp exists in an alientated relationship to time. The camp is outside history in the sense that it exists outside the stream of time, it is a world in brackets. Psychically it is world of old men and children. They with no future: they with no past. It is a world locked into an everlasting omnitemporal present.
Whilst the old men sit and watch TV waiting for the news of the American liberation, it is in the domain of the child where Ghobadi locates his story. The children who are the subjects of the movie stand not in opposition to a world that is structured according to social privilege – as in Bunuel’s Olvidados – but in opposition to a world that is governed by time, by memory of the past and anticipation of the future. Both the children and the rolling breaking news programmes of the satellite tv channels watched by the old, occupy a continuously evolving present. Outside history. The main character is called Satellite, a boy of precocious ability and the natural leader of the band of children, one of whose skills, which is much in demand, is the installation of satellite tv equipment.
Children are generally natural inhabitants of the now, the present, the everlasting summers of a certain notion of Paradise which can be understood as a sort of infantile conceit. The camp children released from the constraining bonds that tie them to the social fabric, revel in the liberation of an unending present. To the children the wreckage and destruction of war is a world in which they are at home. Their present consists in playing in the hulks of blown up tanks and the splintered artillery pieces. Collectively they have no memory that these were the instruments of the destruction of their communities: for the children they are wondrous toys and dens in a real adventure playground As children they are happy to earn money collecting and selling unexploded land mines. It is all part of the fun. When the mines detonate and the children are killed or lose limbs, the memory is marked in and on their bodies but is absent from consciousness. As children of the camps their condition is to live outside the stream of time.
Ghobady’s moral fable concerns what happens when there is a rude intrusion through the portals of this infantile Never Never Land. A disturbance in paradise caused by forces marked by time, by the past and the future, in the form of a brother and sister. The woman child, Agrin carries the past with her. She is both a personal and collective history of collective brutalised treatment and personal trauma. Her death in the opening sequence and the chain of events that precipitate her suicide break the spell of the eternal present the veil of enchantment occupied by Satellite. Agrin’s armless brother has the gift or curse of foresight which enables him to see the future: which gift forces Satellite to recognise the limitations of the rolling news present and recognise that existence is the stream of time.
There are scenes in the film which is never sentimental which have a heightened poignancy in particular the relationship between the armless brother and the child of his sister. But the weight of Turtles Can Fly bears down upon time and the demands that time make upon us to understand what is happening. In the scenes where Satellite comes together with Agrin and her brother, you can feel the claim that the past and future make on the present. Claims which if unmet lead directly not to paradise but to hell.
As the film ends we and Satellite see the arrival of the American soldiers. It is time to understand that the days in paradise are over. It is time for time to get real to relink the past and the future through the present.