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Last Updated: Sunday, 9 January, 2005, 19:27 GMT
Film-making in the wake of Saddam
By Victoria Lindrea
BBC news entertainment reporter

Turtles Can Fly
None of the actors were professionally trained for their roles
Turtles Can Fly, which opened across the UK on Friday, is the first feature film to come out of Iraq since Saddam Hussein took power in 1979.

Directed by Bahman Ghobadi, a Kurd born in Iran, it is set in an Iraqi refugee camp and features as its protagonists a clutch of local children.

This eloquent tale, which won top prize at the San Sebastian film festival last September and is Iran's entry for the best film in a foreign language Oscar, sees the Iraqi people awaiting a conflict upon which they seem to have no bearing.

Village elders struggle to translate news of the impending war via a dodgy satellite; mutilated children clear landmines to trade for second-hand weapons.

Which professional child from Hollywood could play those sequences for me?
Bahman Ghobadi

It was the imagery of those children - and in particular the armless Henkov (Hirsh Feyssal) - that inspired Ghobadi's enigmatic title.

"When I saw all these children without arms, the visual image that came to me, in the physical sense, was turtles.

"The hardship that turtles encounter was similar to the hardship the children encounter. I could compare their patience and tolerance," explains Ghobadi.

Healing process

Yet despite its bleak subject matter, the film is surprisingly humorous - a quality Ghobadi credits to his roots.

Turtles Can Fly
Hirsch Feyssal plays the uniquely gifted Henkov

"In the Kurdish community, we laugh a lot. We have suffered so much hardship - as refugees in exile - we cannot cry anymore. Laughter is the only healing process that is left for us.

"The reality is so harsh in Iraq, it is so sad and depressing that, had I really reflected that reality on film, nobody could bear to watch it.

"So I introduced the sense of humour that exists among the Kurds. There is an expression in Iran 'cutting off a head with cotton' - dealing with something horrific the softest way you can."

Ghobadi works wonders with his amateur cast, and speaks passionately of their contribution to his work.

"Because my stories are inspired by reality, I can only ask those who have lived that reality to enact them," explains Ghobadi.

"Which professional child from Hollywood could play those sequences for me? None - it's impossible!

"Every night I would read through the script with the kids, and if I saw a child doing something I liked, I included it in the scene. The film was improvised on a daily basis.

"These children have a fantastic energy, all they need is a bit of leadership. My role was to conduct the scene."

Today Kurdish parents no longer pray for their children to become doctors or engineers, they want them to become film-makers
Bahman Ghobadi

Career ambition

All the cast were intrinsically involved in the film, building refugee camps and creating the arms bazaar using minimal resources and without recourse to set designers or technicians.

"Sometimes I would make small corrections, add colour - but to a large extent the film was made by the people who have lived in these conditions - that's why it feels so truthful," explains the 35-year-old director.

Ghobadi, whose previous films include the award-winning A Time for Drunken Horses, is spearheading a growing passion for film-making in the Kurdish community.

Turtles Can Fly
Ghobadi attributes his humour to his background as an exile

"Today Kurdish parents no longer pray for their children to become doctors or engineers, they want them to become film-makers," says Ghobadi.

"I don't think it's presumptuous to believe that within five years, when there is more possibility of getting hold of the equipment, Kurdish cinema will flourish. A new vision will come from these children who have so many stories to tell."

For now, facilities remain limited. "We are a population of 35 million Kurds, but we don't even have 10 theatres in which to show films," he explains.

"For me it a great sadness that my people, the people for whom I make these films, never see them."

Turtles Can Fly opened on 7 January at the ICA, London.

Iraqi tale wins at San Sebastian
25 Sep 04 |  Entertainment
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