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Issue Date:  March 18, 2005

Hope grows amid the ashes

'Turtles Can Fly' and 'Born Into Brothels' show children's lives in Iraq and India


Turtles Can Fly deserves special attention as the first movie made in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Written and directed by Bahman Ghobadi, the Kurdish-Iranian who made “A Time for Drunken Horses,” it again shows his strong identification with children and his ability to deal with the most dire human conditions with lyricism and a sense of proud endurance.

The action takes place in a refugee settlement at the Iraq-Turkey border on the eve of the 2003 American invasion. The bleak, rocky landscape is often strangely beautiful, but we hold our breath as a band of scrappy children, apparently orphans, begin to go through the surrounding fields picking up mines. Though several have been disabled in the process, selling mines is their main source of income, and their high spirits and devotion to their 13-year-old leader, “Satellite” (Soran Ebrahim), is quickly apparent.

Satellite, a bespectacled nerd who rushes about on a festooned racing bike, is bossy but dedicated; his name derives from his ability to acquire a dish that will let the villagers know when the Yanks are coming. Amusingly, a few images from uncensored channels offend the elders who have gathered to watch and Satellite has to invent much of his translation of the TV news.

The film’s most heartrending victim is 15-year-old Agrin (Avaz Latif). Satellite tries to befriend her, though he is initially at odds with her brother Hangao (Hiresh Feysal Rahman), who has lost his arms gathering mines and now picks them up with his teeth. Agrin cares for a baby boy, whose connection to her is mysterious but is later revealed in a flashback that indicates she was raped by Iraqi soldiers. Sick with shame and hopelessness, she feels driven to abandon the child.

Mr. Ghobadi moves from one narrative thread to another, avoiding despair by showing the resilience of the children and their concern for each other. Satellite is as generous as he is domineering, and Hangao, who shows a talent for prophecy, predicts a favorable turn of events in the near future. “Turtles Can Fly” is a powerful film, but it is not primarily political; Mr. Ghobadi’s hopes for a Kurdish future are with the children. At the end, U.S. troops enter the village, but a physically and emotionally exhausted Satellite is unable to join the celebration. “What’s the matter,” one of his friends asks. “Don’t you want to meet the Americans?”

The title of the Oscar-winning documentary directed by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, Born Into Brothels, establishes the plight of its subject’s children as even more dire. Fortunately, Ms. Briski establishes the squalor and overcrowding of Calcutta’s red-light district while avoiding the temptation to sensationalize. She lived long enough in the area to understand her subject deeply and to develop genuine relationships with a handful of 8- to 12-year-olds, all of whom are the offspring of prostitutes.

The children are intelligent and attractive; when they matter-of-factly play on the roof because a mother needs the bedroom for business, you want to cry out against the fate that seems to guarantee a life sentence in the brothel. The narrative concentrates on the results of Ms. Briski’s experiment in giving the children cameras: We are shown the work produced by a half-dozen of them and the delight they take in recording life on the streets and each other’s reactions. It is clearly a positive learning experience and a lesson that builds self-confidence, but Ms. Briski realizes they need a complete break from their environment.

Much of “Born Into Brothels” involves Ms. Briski’s efforts to get some of her charges into good boarding schools; officials are cautious and progress is slow. An endearing sequence shows fearful children taking a blood test, which establishes that none are HIV-positive. Another scene records their delight when their pictures are shown at a local exhibition; several are clearly developing a sense of craft.

The film does not sentimentalize its subject; one would need to see it more than once to relate individual girls to the pictures they took. “Born Into Brothels” shows Ms. Briski’s effectiveness both as advocate and filmmaker. A realist, she does not make exaggerated claims for her experiment. The pudgy boy who seems to have the most artistic talent only decides to attend boarding school after a week in Holland on a prize trip. At the end we learn that one of her charges has dropped out of school voluntarily, and another has been pulled out by her father, who sees her as a future source of income.

Anyone who suffered with “Turtles Can Fly” and “Born Into Brothels” can hardly be blamed for enjoying a “family picture” like Because of Winn-Dixie. Based on Kate DiCamillo’s award-winning children’s novel, its title derives from the fact that a lovable shepherd dog causes such a rumpus in a Winn-Dixie grocery store that 10-year-old India Opal Buloni (AnnSophia Robb) is given the animal just to get him out of the store.

The lonely but picture-pretty Opal lives with her preacher father (Jeff Daniels) in a Naomi, Fla., trailer park and wonders about her long-absent mother. The father, who conducts informal services in the convenience store, agrees to let Opal keep the dog and admits her mother hated being a preacher’s wife, but fails to answer all her questions.

Opal is left free to explore the town, making friends with its librarian (Eva Marie Saint), a guitar-playing pet store operator (Dave Matthews) with a prison past, and Gloria Dump (Cicely Tyson), a blind gardener whom local boys call a witch. After learning something from each, Opal throws a memorable party for them all. Her father comes late and blames himself for his wife’s departure but shows his gratitude that she has left Opal with him.

“Winn-Dixie” has a strong cast, and there is a sense of magic in some of its details. The process often seems staged, however; sometimes we even taste the sugar being added.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, March 18, 2005

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