Turtles Can Fly
Opens Fri., April 15, at Uptown
Containing considerably more suffering than art, this Kurdish drama begins just before the American invasion of Iraq. Refugees have descended on a village near the border with Turkey, where guard towers are visible in the distance. Iranian Kurds also cross the valley in search of loved ones. This is the no-fly zone of Iraqi Kurdistan, but nobody feels safe. All the fields are mined, and children dig alongside relief authorities to retrieve the explosives, then sell the deadly scrap. Leading one gang of child workers is four-eyed "Satellite" (Soran Ebrahim), a pushy but smart kid of about 14 who has a knack with antennas and satellite dish receivers. His chief lieutenant has a withered leg owing to a bomb or polio, and his most skilled rival is a refugee teen, Hengov, with both arms missing from an explosion. In one of Turtles' most disturbing images, Hengov disarms a mine with his mouth. No special effects here—unlike with Gary Sinise in Forrest Gump, when limbs are missing in Turtles, they're really gone.
Hengov has a slightly younger sister, Agrin (Avaz Latif), and these orphans arrive in the village with a blind toddler in tow. Though she almost never speaks, wild-haired Agrin is sultry in a pubescent sort of way; she's got the kind of beauty that would attract bad men and good boys, like Satellite, in equal measure. Mainly, he's intent on his scrap-metal business, his army of urchins, and finding CNN among "the forbidden channels" on the village dish. ("The world is in his hands," a villager says of Bush on TV. Some consolation.)
Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi has previously filmed in this part of the world in A Time for Drunken Horses, and he's got a native love for its terrain and people. His Kurdish cast is comprised of nonprofessionals, and they deliver their lines with conviction if not craft. Viewed at home, you'd mute the movie to read the subtitles and spare yourself the constant shrieking and yelling. For long stretches, Turtles is like being stuck inside the most grating, wretched day-care center on earth. A documentary approach would've served Ghobadi better in drawing attention to the Kurds, who have historically been oppressed from all three sides of their divided homeland.
Still, despite its scrambled plot (Hengov is a prophet, the mysteriously parented toddler falls ill, Satellite swims to the bottom of a cursed spring), Turtles gives a bleak, vivid sense of the chaos war inflicts far from the front lines and headlines. When U.S. helicopters arrive to drop leaflets on the villagers who've gathered on a hilltop, it's like a photograph from Sebastião Salgado—our tidy phrases rain down on a miserable people we barely understand. To his credit, with each new film, Ghobadi is bridging that gap. (NR) BRIAN MILLER
Voices In Wartime
Opens Fri., April 15, at Guild 45
When it's good, it's very, very good, and when it's bad, it's incoherent. But Rick King's documentary is one of the most original war movies ever made. It's replete with alternately ghastly and galvanizing combat footage, benefiting from the paradox Truffaut defined: It's impossible to make an antiwar movie, because war is such an exciting cinematic subject. It also riskily focuses on words as much as images. Much of the film consists of interviews about poetry and recitations of masterpieces (and so-so pieces) by everybody from Homer to Auden to the startlingly eloquent 12-year-old Michigan poet Cameron Penny.
The project is Northwest-made. Executive producer Andrew Himes' background as a poet and a Microsoft Internet pioneer positions him to put his literary education to social use; his wife and co-producer, Alex Wilber, is a Seattle novelist (and was my erstwhile Amazon.com colleague). The project originated, ironically, with that archenemy of the American mind, Laura Bush, who summoned poets to the White House for a January 2003 symposium honoring Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes. Irascible Port Angeles invitee Sam Hamill launched a poets' revolt to turn the evening into an Iraq-bashing antiwar extravaganza. So Laura canceled the fete; Hamill et al. triumphantly relocated the event to New York, and enlisted Whitman, Hughes, and lots of living poets in the fight against Bush warmongering.
King and editor Daniel Loewenthal whip the footage documenting this satisfying fracas into pretty good shape. Far better is the film's extended treatment of World War I shell-shock poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. The superimposition of war scenes and Owen's handwritten death poem "The Last Laugh," complete with scribbled revisions, is literary explication on a par with Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory.
There are other high points, but nothing else in the movie approaches the structural integrity of the Bush vs. Hamilland WWI passages. The narrative hops from poet to poet and war to war almost at random; the nice joining of the segues can't conceal the lack of logic. Much ofthe verse is movingly intoned, especially Garrison Keillor's profound and basso profundo reading of Whitman's CivilWar dirges. But a sympathetic cause and an inspiring subject, such as Seattle poet Emily Warn, do not always spell aesthetic success. Warn's touching story of her D-Day hero dad's tragic end does not prevent her poem about him from sounding like warmed-over Wordsworth.
Despite such longueurs and hiccupping rhythms, Voices is well worth seeing. And if the truncated versions of the poems vex you, you can check out their entireties on the Web at www.voicesinwartime.org. Men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. (NR) TIM APPELO
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
Runs Fri., April 15–Thurs., April 21, at Varsity
Michael Moore's lieutenant-sound-editor-turned-director Judy Irving has a mini-indie hit on her hands with this niftily photographed documentary. It celebrates two endangered species: the 45 or so bright green escapee parrots who flock in the trees below San Francisco's Coit Tower, and the still more flighty denizens of nearby North Beach, the last redoubt of bohemianism in a town so frighteningly gentrified it makes Seattle look affordable.
Fiftysomething Seattle-born Mark Bittner survives on the perilous slopes above North Beach, though he hasn't worked a straight job in decades and hasn't paid rent in 25 years. His landlords let him live in a funky 19th-century cabin because they respect his dedication to the parrots he tends more tenderly than the Birdman of Alcatraz.
Irving is a skilled nature document-arian. When Bittner explains the social dynamics of his parrots, her footage perfectly captures the fugitive behaviors he describes. The parrots Scrapper and Scrapperella (most of these birds have names) do indeed seem to be tragic victims of Scrapperella's neurotic compulsion to pluck all her chest feathers—and Scrapper's, too. Another parrot—Mingus, I believe—nods and grooves in time to Bittner's blues-guitar licks. The blue-crowned conure parrot Connor, a genetic misfit in a flock of cherry-crowned conures, stands curmudgeonly apart from the crowd, snubbing them; yet when they gang up on a sick or injured bird, he compassionately shoos them away.
These aren't stupid parrot tricks; we're watching a real community in action. Irving also gives us a similar sense of the North Beach human community: the hipster rich; the old Italian coffeehouse lady who won't let Bittner pay; the vestigial Beatster/hippies like him. Bittner seems rigorously sane and refreshingly free of the dim-bulb, woo-woo enthusiasms one associates with Bay Area social dropouts. He comes off like a bona fide naturalist, and the zoo expert Irving interviews treats Bittner as an equal. He may not have a degree, but nobody can top Bittner's exquisite fieldwork.
The movie is ultimately a deeply personal, touching portrait. Will Bittner wind up dying alone, like his old bachelor parrot, who disdains the threat of hawks as defiantly as Bittner does gentrification? Will he ever cut his ponytail, which he vows to grow "until I get a girlfriend"? Watch and see. And your spirit will take flight. (NR) TIM APPELO