There are rare instances of (uneasy, disturbing) humor in this movie about Iraqi Kurds in a war zone (most notably a Monty Python and the Holy Grail moment where the lead character and an armless boy get in a fight, and the armless boy kicks his ass), and a few warm, light moments (e.g., the lead character becomes smitten with a girl, and will do anything and everything to get her attention and her approval), but overall Turtles Can Fly is one of the most powerfully sad movies I’ve seen.
While the atmosphere itself is as brutal and nightmarish as it could be, the truly horrifying, intense scenes are fairly few and occur mostly in the second half of the movie. Makers of films like The Coast Guard could learn a lesson here. A greater quantity of scenes intended to shock people and really hit them hard emotionally would likely have paradoxically been less effective, just through overkill. But you never get inured to the suffering in this movie, or at least I didn’t, because there’s just the right amount of horror at the right moments for maximum impact.
This movie affected me more than it might affect some people—and more than it would have affected me in the past—because in recent years I’ve established important and loving connections with certain children, and one of the consequences of their opening up my heart the way they have is that I feel the suffering of children now. Even if it’s something like this that I know is fiction, if the filmmaking is skillful enough, it gets to me.
There are multiple powerful scenes like that that affected me, with one in particular being very tough for me to take.
I don’t know that I even want something to hit home that hard. You know the phrase “not for the faint of heart”? I think I’m becoming one of those faint of heart folks, at least about certain things.
For this is indeed a movie about children. One of the most striking consequences for countries and regions experiencing continuous war for a sustained period of time is a demographic one—more and more of the adults are killed off, and the average age slides lower and lower.
Children greatly outnumber adults in the villages depicted in this movie, and the few adults there are play only supporting roles.
I won’t list all the horrors, but as an example, one recurring one is that in order to survive, the children must sell one of the few things they have, which is their labor as mine removers. They are hired by local farmers to clear fields regularly, and they are allowed to keep the mines, which they can then sell to unscrupulous arms dealers.
They are quite skilled at what they do, and thus only rarely set off a mine. Rare is still often enough, though, that many of them are missing limbs or have otherwise been disfigured. But it’s not as if they can then collect some kind of disability insurance; they still trudge back out to the fields day after day and make do with whatever is left of their body. The armless boy, for instance, has become quite adept at removing mines with his mouth.
That should give you a pretty good idea of what you’re dealing with in this movie.
The lead character of this film really is an inspiring, positive figure. In fact, more clearly a “hero” than the protagonist in 95% of films.
Ultimately, though, he’s no match for what he’s up against. It’ll take a lot more than his efforts, as impressive as they are. Many of the villagers believe, or at least try to, that that “lot more” will be the military might of the United States and its allies.
But the movie’s message seems to be “Don’t get your hopes up.”
Just to state the obvious, no one should ever have to live the way these people lived (and mostly died) under Saddam. But the massive military intervention of the U.S. has at best rearranged the suffering and changed its form; the total misery of the Iraqi people has likely been greater rather than less in these last few years than it would have been otherwise.
Turtles Can Fly may be even more of a downer than Ghosts. It’s also, I think, a better crafted movie overall, with sharply drawn, memorable characters. If you can handle it, it’ll stay with you.