By: Victoria Heath
Picasso was right when he said, “Art is a lie that makes us recognize the truth.” Yet some truths are too haunting, dark and difficult for many of us to accept as reality. Some are even harder to rectify.
In a defining scene of the Kurdish film “Turtles Can Fly,” directed and written by Bahman Ghobadi, the troubled heroine, Agrin, fights her demons as she stands at the edge of a cliff, looking down at the fate that awaits her. Her tiny frame is covered in a red dress engulfed by wind, perhaps a symbol of the blood spilled in the conflict and oppression that had ravaged her country—ironically a country that was never actually hers because of her Kurdish identity—and one that had subsequently abandoned her long ago.
This award-winning film was released in 2005, only two years after the United States’ unilateral invasion of Iraq. Some viewers feel the film doesn’t offer an opinion on the war; its focus is on the actual lives of the children and teenagers living in a Kurdish refugee camp on the border of Turkey and Iraq, two weeks before the American invasion begins. As Roger Ebert explained in a 2005 review of the film, “It simply provides faces for people we think of as abstractions.”
The war is ongoing.
Although Ebert believed the film wasn’t necessarily a commentary on the War, Ghobadi stated in a 2005 interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the film was in fact a “protest.”
“It protests that America can’t make a heaven for us. It will only create another trouble in the future. I believe that only the shape of aggression will change. Saddam was much more violent, but this, while still violent, comes forward with the slogan of democracy, saying that we want to free people, but in practice it’s just a game. It’s a pre-written script,” he said.
Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Ghobadi’s statement became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Here we are, 13 years following the fall of Saddam Hussein and five years since President Obama announced US withdrawal from the area, and Iraq has fallen prey to corruption, insurgency, sectarian division and extremism. Kurdish children, like those portrayed in the film, now join other Arab-Iraqi children in refugee camps across the region.
While many, including President Obama, now claim the Iraq invasion was a “mistake”, social critic Noam Chomsky goes even further, stating it was “the worst crime of this century.”
What is the truth?
“Turtles Can Fly” remains one of the most important films to watch in order to understand the effects conflicts have on civilians. It also sheds light on the plight of the often generalized-but-diverse group of ethnic Kurds living in the region. The characters portrayed in the film could possibly represent Iraqi Kurds displaced in the Northern part of the country following the Iraqi government’s “Arabization” campaigns carried out since the 1970s.
The film’s other significant facet, however, may be lost on some viewers yet it informs current discussions regarding the “refugee crisis” in the Middle East. The children in the film aren’t portrayed as weak, passive victims of their circumstance. Instead, they find ways to survive and even manage themselves without adults. One of the most resourceful and intelligent characters in the film is a young teenager nicknamed Satellite. He brings information to the adults through satellites, calls together meetings and organizes the other children for work (their “work” is disarming land mines to sell to arms dealers). Ebert described the character as “too busy to reflect on the misery of his life.”
Perhaps this should inform how we view “refugees,” a categorization that instills primarily negative stereotypes. Of course these individuals have endured tragedy, and most are victims of war, conflict and oppression, but they are also resilient people who contribute to society in many different ways. They are not an “other” to be either pitied or despised but individuals who should be included and supported. As Alek Wek, a supermodel and former Sudanese refugee once told Forbes Africa: “Refugees do not want handouts. They want tools; they want to be empowered so that they can take control of their own destiny. Refugees are dignified people.”
The undeniable “truth” is that when war and conflict arise away from our cities, our homes and our families, we forget their consequences. In fact, we forget it’s even happening. The people who bear the brunt of conflict serve as nothing more than statistics used in news headlines or political talking points. This film adamantly protests that simplification.
Ghobadi shows that the world easily forgets our Agrins and the demons they carry—demons conjured out of our own inactions.