Through a Kurdish Lens
March 2005 Issue
Kurdistan may still be a “lost horizon” for Kurds, an elusive utopia, a homeland vitiated by the borders of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, but Bahman Ghobadi knows the way there.
In his first film, A Time for Drunken Horses (2000), Ghobadi led us across the Iran-Iraq border through the eyes of a boy compelled to take over the smuggling business of his father after he is killed by a landmine. A Camera d’Or winner at Cannes, it was also one of the first Kurdish-language films.
In Marooned in Iraq (2003), Ghobadi charted the Kurds’ collective memory of migration and genocide through the story of Mirza, an elderly man who journeys across Iran to rescue his beloved ex-wife stranded at the Iraqi border. Hanareh, disfigured in the infamous chemical attack on Halabja, begs Mirza to raise her baby daughter. A concise, elegiac introduction to the history of contemporary Kurdistan, Marooned in Iraq is also an archetypal road movie.
In his third feature, Turtles Can Fly, which is being released in the U.S. in March, Ghobadi steers us to a village near the Iran-Iraq border on the verge of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Unlike his first two movies, where hope shines faintly but unequivocally, in Turtles Can Fly, we enter Gehenna. The film begins with a suicide. Its ensemble cast is composed of teenagers, one armless, another blind, another the leader of a gang of children who scout for landmines. And then there is the young woman, Agrin, sister to the armless boy, Hengov, both survivors of Halabja. Hengov can foretell the future from his vivid dreams, and he will not allow Agrin to abandon the blind, lachrymose toddler who lives with them, the child of her soldier-rapist. With war imminent, Agrin sees only that the past is about to repeat itself.
Ghobadi, speaking in a telephone interview from Paris in January (through a Farsi interpreter), reflected on the lugubrious vision of his latest feature. “I am really quite honestly hopeless,” he says. “I am not sure how I will find the energy to make my next film.” He calls the war “a game,” and says Bush and the United States are in Iraq only for oil. “In Saddam’s place, they will put another leader similar to him,” he declares. “Then I fear for the children.”
An Iranian Kurd, Ghobadi was born in Baneh, near Iran’s
border with Iraq. His childhood was not very different than that of his protagonist in A Time for Drunken Horses. He was sixteen years old when his parents divorced.
“I feel that there is no distance between me as an adult and me as a child,” he admits. “I love children, but you know the children of Kurdistan are not children. They do not act like children in the West because they don’t have the luxury of having that time to be children. They act like they are thirty or forty years old.” At thirty-six, Ghobadi is still unmarried, but he has very definite ideas about that part of his future. “Should I get married, my primary objective is to have children,” he says, laughing. But he adds, more soberly, “Despite everything, I have put all of my hopes onto the children of Kurdistan.”
In Turtles Can Fly, our only glimpse into the future of Kurdistan is Satellite, a boy named for his ability to procure and install satellite dishes. Satellite’s work is in demand just before the war, since villagers are eager to hear news of the arrival of American soldiers. The teenager also leads a group of impoverished children who look for valuable landmines, which they can resell at a local market or exchange for guns, radios, and satellite dishes. Satellite’s industriousness and resiliency are poignant in contrast to the poverty of his surroundings, but they are thrown into high relief when he falls in love with Agrin, and imagines his future. “I have been looking for a girl like you,” he tells her. Satellite lives only in the moment, and for a while he is allowed to hope.
The title, Turtles Can Fly, holds great meaning for Ghobadi. “Turtles have a very long life,” the filmmaker explains. “In that long life, they live partly on water and partly on land. This is symbolic for me of the joy and anguish and migration of the Kurds. The slow-moving turtle is like the Kurds: With all of our problems, we have managed to move forward, and we always end up upright.” Visually, Ghobadi connects the turtle that appears in the film, the pet of the blind toddler, to the child’s armless uncle. “When I was filming near water, the boy without arms reminded me of the turtle and then of the Kurds,” he says. “It’s all interconnected.” For now, Tehran is Ghobadi’s home when he isn’t traveling for his work, but Kurdistan remains his homeland: “When I am in Tehran my full spirit resides in Kurdistan.”
Ghobadi’s films are especially expressive of the plight of women. His female characters are unflinchingly courageous in the face of incredible travails. The sister in A Time for Drunken Horses, who marries only after she extracts a promise from the groom’s family to pay for her brother’s much-needed operation, is simply unforgettable. Marooned in Iraq, despite its almost all-male cast, joins Dariush Mehrjui’s Leila, Samira Makhmalbaf’s Blackboards (in which Ghobadi was an actor), and Marzieh Meshkini’s The Day I Became a Woman as among the strongest recent tributes to women to emerge from Iran. Now, with the release of Turtles Can Fly, Agrin’s visage will be annealed in the minds of all who see the film. “In order to know any culture truly, it’s important to understand first and foremost the women,” Ghobadi explains.
Agrin’s predicament in Turtles Can Fly is a case in point. Her brother forces her to keep the child who is a constant reminder of her rape. The Kurds have no more enlightened a view of rape than Westerners have; women are left to bear the shame. Giving up the child would resolve Agrin’s dilemma: At the very least, she might be able to marry. Keeping the child puts her in a purgatory from which there is no redemption save death. The irony is that what Hengov perceives as a duty to family—he cannot abandon his nephew—destroys his family and makes him complicit in the state-sanctioned rape of his sister.
The women in Ghobadi’s films compel us to consider the lives of people forced to the boundaries of wretchedness by their fellow human beings in the name of political ideology, institutionalized religion, greed, and the Pandora’s box of crimes that lead to ethnic cleansing. Reflecting on the fate of his homeland two weeks before the Iraq election, Ghobadi is rueful. “As the world has been turned upside down, everything is turned upside down—geography, religion, culture,” he says. “It is all up in the air right now. It is as if it is really Armageddon here.”
The most exquisite irony of all is that such a filmmaker finds himself, on the day of our interview, unsure of whether he will be allowed to traverse the border of fear we Americans have erected since 9/11. “I hope I will see you in New York,” Ghobadi avers, referring to the opening here of Turtles Can Fly. A week before he is to arrive, his visa is not assured. “I love Americans,” he declares. “They seem to understand my movies the best.”
Maria Garcia writes regularly about independent film. A New York City native and intrepid traveler, she would someday like to vacation in the independent state of Kurdistan. Pictured above is the character Satellite from “Turtles Can Fly.”