Dir/scr:Bahman Ghobadi. Iran-Iraq, 2004. 95mins.

Fouryears after he first emerged on the international scene, first as an actor inSamira Makhmablaf's Blackboards, then as director of A Time ForDrunken Horses, Bahman Ghobadi returns with Turtles Can Fly.

Thestory is again located in Ghobadi's native Kurdistan and deals once more withthe tragic misery of its inhabitants, particularly the children. But TurtlesCan Fly, which won the Golden Shell at San Sebastian at the weekend, has asadder and more despondent tone to it than any of Ghobadi's previous work.

Takingplace on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq, the picture's topicalityshould bolster its career, making it the kind of fare that any arthouse circuitor festival would be interested in.

Soran(Soran Ebrahim), better known as Kak Satellite, is a 13-year-old who twistseveryone around his finger, installing antennae and dishes for villagersanxious to hear of Saddam's disposal. He is the undisputed leader of theyoungsters around him, ordering them about and trading the fruits of theirlabours for whatever he considers to be necessary.

Abenign little tyrant who is adored by his followers, he eventually falls forthe gloomy unsmiling countenance of Agrin (Avaz Latif), a girl with the face ofa sad Madonna. At the same time he is profoundly disturbed by her brotherHenkov, (Hirsh Feyssal), who was left armless after he stepped onto a landmineand who appears to have the capacity to look into the future. With the pair areRisa, not yet three, whose role is not evident at first but whose role becomesrelevant further on.

Whateverplot there is here doesn't really matter. Rather, what counts is how thesepeople live and the matter-of-fact manner in which they accept their unbearableconditions. These horrors include children dismantling land mines (of whichthere are more per square metre than anywhere else in the world); villagesrepeatedly being erased off the map by punitive military action; and women andchildren being beaten, raped, mutilated and killed while the survivors aremaimed for life.

Usingthe bare, forbidding, spectacular Kurdish mountains as a suitable backdrop,Ghobadi depicts a primitive society, barely out of the Stone Age and dragged byits heels into the 21st Century, although its head is still far away in thepast.

Thebombings, the explosions, the carcasses of the charred tanks, the minefields,and of course the TV sets, all attest that the modern world has visited thearea. But the misery and the squalor suggest that's about all that it leftbehind.

Adeceptively simple digitally-shot film that looks almost basic in its choices,Turtles Can Fly boasts several photogenic scenes that demand both adequatepreparation and visual imagination. Sound and music are similarly employed, effectivelyunderscoring dramatic points, while Ghobadi's work with his youthful performersis nothing less than admirable.

As bleak as thetale is, touches of humour still appear, and there is a sense of vitality thatprevails despite the tragedy. Ghobadi may say that the past is bad, the presentis worse and the future doesn't look any better - but he still seems to believethat not everything is lost.

Prod cos: MIJ Films (Teheran)
Int'l sales:
Bac Films
Bahman Ghobadi
Shahriar Assadi
MoustafaKhergheposh, Hayedeh Safiyari
Main cast:
SoranEbrahim, Hirsh Feyssal, Avaz Latif