Turtles Can Fly
By Vicente Rodriguez-Ortega
interviewed about the negative depiction
of extraterrestrials in War of the Worlds,
Steven Spielberg stated that even though
he once made E.T. and Close Encounters
of the Third Kind, in the post-9-11
world order, he felt the need to tell this
tale. Consequently, his new extra-terrestrials
no longer swallow Reese’s Pieces but human
flesh and bones. 2) The Pentagon screened
Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers
after the Al-Qaeda World Trade Center attack
to learn counterterrorism tactics. 3) Once
the aliens have started dispatching buildings
and humans left and right, his two children,
Robbie and Rachel, ask Cruise’s divorced
dad Ray: “Is it the terrorists?” The Bush
administration has indeed taught our children
that America is indeed in a “war on terror.”
4) Robbie has some homework to do over the
weekend he’s staying with daddy. The topic?
The French occupation of Algeria. 5) The
U.S. army in Spielberg’s familial epic is
utterly helpless and quasi-moronic. The
tentacled monsters are bound to succeed.
Disobeying daddy’s commands, Robbie joins
the military following the call of his self-imposed
militaristic zealotry. He heads to a certain
death. However, he survives, as all his-family-in-crisis
Is Robbie perhaps, the new breed of patriotic American, who, after studying the enemy (E.T.s=Terrorists in War of the Worlds’ literal allegory), will undoubtedly prevail, while recognizing his father (of the nation) as such for the first time when he arrives to Boston (yes, the spirit of the Plymouth comes into the picture too) after a long pilgrimage over the devastated East Coast? It looks like it. Throw into the mix Mr. Voiceover (Morgan Freeman) to elevate the prestige of Spielberg’s ultra-nationalistic narrative via the mobilization of H.G. Wells’s text and, once again, like in the Armageddons, Independence Days and Deep Impacts of this universe (now at war with terrorists once the string of pre-millennial paranoias are a forgotten epistemological horizon), humankind becomes the United States of America the Beautiful.
A very small story is what Spielberg set out to recount: a single family’s whereabouts in the midst of the havoc caused by a blood-splattery alien attack. No historical landmarks destroyed (New Jersey is a good stunt double for that matter), and no political big wigs. Only a simple, working-class family whose day-to-day is disturbed by the unthinkable. If H.G. Wells’ leap from the idiosyncrasies of Great Britain into those of humanity as a whole is accomplished by placing the power to defeat the aliens in the nationless micro-organisms that surround all of us since the birth of our planet, the mobilization of the novel’s text allows Spielberg to bridge the gap between the American and the Universal, finding, thus, a perfect alibi to reduce the world to his country of origin. This ideological stance also signals the limits of Spielberg’s allegorical discourse by exposing the formulaic drive—the U.S. stands for the whole world—that informs its very sociopolitical fabric within the terrain of the quasi-exhausted realm of the Hollywood disaster blockbuster. Turtles Can Fly, conversely, strips off all formulae and lays a bare picture of one of the multiple, unprivileged worlds that the Spielbergian epic ignores.
The film is set in a Kurd town turned into a refugee camp on the border between Iraq and Turkey two weeks before the eruption of the U.S-Iraq war. Bahman Ghobadi recounts the death-bound day-to-day of a group of orphaned children working as minefield deactivators. The townspeople are trying to change the orientation of their antennae to get news of when the war will start. “Satellite,” the teenage leader and caretaker of the hundreds of orphans, reports to the elder men that their antennae will not work, but a satellite dish would—the town is excluded from the thousand of discourses about the imminent U.S. intervention that flooded news channels. Soon after, Satellite goes to a neighboring market to buy a satellite dish for the town. He pays in cash and land mines. Aside from money, mines have become the strongest currency in this part of the world. It is through these destructive assets that the children can make a living and, at the same time, easily fall prey of death any day and anytime.
inhabitants find out about the beginning
of the war through the satellite dish. Hengov—who
everyone refers to as the “armless boy”—warns
the refugees about the upcoming conflict
since he has the ability to foretell the
future. Not accidentally, all his predictions
anticipate tragic events. In this part of
the world, Ghobadi seems to say, there’s
no way out of death or physical suffering.
Once Hengov’s prediction is fulfilled and
the war erupts, Ghobadi resorts to the utilization
of newsreel footage. We see a few hi-tech
U.S. bombers taking off, a machine gun in
action, and Saddam Hussein’s falling statue.
These very spectacular, Western images fail
to encompass the suffering of the limbless
children of the Iraqi-Turkish border like
and thus only offer to those hooked to the
worldwide networks of information a partial
view of the complex course of events that
the use of military power causes.
Immediately after, the film returns to the
diegetic universe of the Kurd town as two
U.S. Apache helicopters fly by, throwing
U.S. propagandistic pamphlets to the refugees
gathered in a hill: “liberation is coming.”
By juxtaposing these two discourses—one
belonging to the average media coverage
of warfare in the lands beyond the West
and the other an instance of simplistic
propaganda, Turtles Can Fly uncovers
the perverted partial discursivity that
has structured the Western media reporting
of the Middle East conflict and, more extensively,
the coverage of warfare since we plunged
into the so-called media age.
Once the U.S. military arrives, they do
not bring freedom. They simply shift the
power positions between the different kinds
of aggressors that may strike against the
Kurd refugees. Satellite runs afoul of a
mine. To ease his pain, his 6-year old subordinate,
Shirkooh, brings him a present: an arm of
Saddam Hussein’s statue that he has traded
with the American soldiers in town. In fact,
he reports to Satellite that the mine business
is no longer profitable and that the soldiers
have told him that what they will sell now
are things like the arm. The very signs
of the clean-cut version of the war that
Western media have endlessly promoted substitute
now for the killing mines as valuable currency.
In the closing sequence of the film, Satellite
stands, helped by casts, on the side of
the road. American soldiers trot by, pursuing
their next military target. Soon Satellite
starts walking in the opposite direction.
Now he has realized they won’t change anything
in the world in which he lives. As temporary
occupants, their goals point to a different
The “mine children” fight Terror in their
own way, one that equally comes from the
governments of their native countries and
the Western powers’ Middle East war crusade.
This is a world Steven Spielberg and the
flocks of mediocre filmmakers that repeatedly
imitate his technical cinematic mastery
have chosen to ignore. Poor, armless boys
and girls don’t sell that many tickets.