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Bahman Ghobadi returns to his tormented youth for creative guidance with his latest tragic, multi-award winning film, Turtles Can Fly. On a Sydney visit, he tells Andrew L. Urban how his own suicidal feelings of the past helped him direct his cast of non professional child actors.

When director Bahman Ghobadi was shooting Turtles Can Fly in the Kurdish village of his homeland, he was in a way trying to recreate emotions from his own troubled youth, when he was a suicidal teenager. “I was looking through the camera for something [in the performances] that reminded me of my youth,” he says through his interpreter. He was looking for that look in the actor’s face that would register its deep, inner anguish through the lens.

The film is set in an Iran/Turkey Kurdish border village, where the villagers are keen to get a satellite dish installed so they can tune in to news reports about the impending US invasion of Iraq. The 13 year old boy who organises the village children for anti-personnel mine collecting duties, the young Master Fixit of the area, sets about getting this task done, and is nicknamed Satellite (Soran Ebrahim). In the process, Agrin (Avaz Latif) a young girl from another village who arrives with her armless brother Hengov (Hiresh Feysal Rahman), and her blind three year old bastard son, catches his eye. Hengov, it turns out, has a gift for predicting future events, more useful even than the satellite dish. Satellite attempts to befriend this strange, damaged and unhappy trio, without success.

"healthy and indeed energetic in his task"

“Satellite especially reminds me of myself as a youth,” says Ghobadi. And one guiding memory is of his own face reflected back at him in the mirror when the deeply saddened, suicidal Ghobadi would talk to himself in the mirror. “that’s the emotion I was looking for in Agrin …” 

Ghobadi speaks softly and conveys the quiet, self effacing aura of a gentle soul, with deep dark eyes, a sad face and a half smile. His green T shirt and blue jeans seem incongruously Western on him, as we sit in the afternoon stillness of a Fox Studios eatery in Sydney, perched around a coffee table on three little stools: Ghobadi, myself and Said his interpreter, whose partner was one of the film’s editors. Said was drawn into the production on location, and has offered to help. 

Anyone who has seen Ghobadi’s previous film, A Time for Drunken Horses, will recognise the Ghobadi trademarks: non-professional actors, mostly youngsters, in a story set amidst the desolate landscape of a Kurdish zone of northern Iraq. And once again, his characters are damaged, either emotionally like the 14 year old rape victim, Agrin, or physically like her blind child and armless brother Hengov. Satellite is healthy and indeed energetic in his task of running child gangs collecting abandoned field mines for a pittance. 

The astonishing performances, the melancholy characterizations that Ghobadi elicits from this cast of locals is almost distracting by the veracity of the work. Ghobadi says “it’s easy to find talented people in that area. I wanted people who have suffered similar to my own experiences in childhood. And I also used to try foretelling the future … There are bits and pieces of myself reflected in them. That’s how I worked, to find the truth in the characters.”

"The reasons for the title are varied: I wanted to differentiate the film"

The title’s significance eludes me, despite the scene in which turtles are evident. When I ask about the significance of the title, Ghobadi replies with barely concealed delight. “I really like it when people ask me this because it shows they’re still engaged with the film … they haven’t disconnected. The reasons for the title are varied: I wanted to differentiate the film. It’s like naming your child, to make them stand out … But also, in the film the turtle is the symbol of the girl, Agrin, carrying the burden of her child on her back. She is held down by this burden .. she could achieve more without it.” She could fly, metaphorically speaking, Ghobadi is saying, although this conjures up an uncharacteristically optimistic view of Agrin’s possibilities.

Published August 18, 2005

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Bahman Ghobadi


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