Bahman Ghobadi, Director of Turtles Can FlyMR. BUSH’S COFFEEHOUSE
Turtles Can Fly is a “happening” in Iranian cinema. It rarely happens that all aspects of a film turn out to be good. From its outstanding performances to its excellent filming, from its calculated editing to its good soundtrack and music and … and of course its protagonists whose adventures in life scratches your soul and a story so bitter that you shall never be able to forget. When I first saw Turtles… at the prestigious San Sebastian Film Festival I was in awe. Amongst all the lukewarm and mediocre works of well-known and unknown directors, suddenly this shooting star illuminated the sky of the Festival. Occasionally, a chain of circumstances helps create a perfect work, as is the case with Turtles Can Fly. To be honest, I told Ghobadi there and then that I did not believe that another star would be likely to shine soon and turn into the moon of the event.
Where did the story of the film come from and how did it take shape in your mind? Did you start shooting with the finished script or did some parts materialize on the scene?
Exactly a month after Saddam Hussein’s fall from power, I went to Iraq in that chaotic state of affairs to try and screen my film Songs of my Motherland in order to publicize it for Europe and the United States and at the same time to give shape to a cultural event of sort in Iraq. Together with a friend and a small camera we filmed for some three hours along the way and returned to Tehran. I witnessed some incredible scenes there: fields covered with cartridge-shells, tanks, children without arms and legs, and mine-infested lands near the border. There were children there who formed the so-called “mine groups” and who were mine-sweepers. And there were professional mine-sweepers with their dogs who sat for hours on end on their chair waiting to buy the product of the children’s labour. It was an unbelievable sight. With the help of my friend Reza Behzadi, we edited our film, put soundtrack on it and it became a documentary which we called The War Has Ended. While looking at the rushes again, the pictures of the mine-fields and the mine sweepers haunted me. Prior to the documentary, I had the intention of making a full-length feature film in Iraq. We had taken the camera with us just to take pictures and make a film based on our notes. I wanted a strong plot and I wanted to make use of the locations I had seen. Then I wrote a sketch about the homeless roaming about in search of war news. But then I realized that this story was inadequate. I started adding secondary stories to it with the result of producing a thirty to forty page long sketch which I read to my friends. They were of great help developing it.
Once the sketch was finished you went back to Iraq and…
Yes. But when I returned to Iraq there was no trace of the cartridge shell covered fields, or tanks, or weapon markets. The Americans had wiped them all out. Especially in Kurdistan. We could not film in the Arab sections of the country since it would have been dangerous and a hazard to the lives of the crew. We therefore spent two months looking for a safer location and the necessary accessories. For the sequence of the fields covered with cartridge shells, it took us a month to comb the streets of Karkook in order to gather enough shells. During that time the plot changed. So did the protagonists. The script was re-written and the dialogue written on a daily basis at times on the scene. This is not a new thing with me. I have used the same technique in my previous films.
With inexperienced children who had never acted before, how did you manage to write the dialogues? Did you give them the script prior to shooting so that they would learn to say more or less what you had in mind?
I have my own way of doing this. I recite the dialogues word by word, sentence by sentence to my actor and he or she repeats them after me. During editing I delete my own voice. “Satellite” (a 14 year-old-boy) was the only one I could practice five or six lines of dialogue with. But “Agrin” who was a nine-year old village girl lived in a hamlet with no electricity or television. Or other children, like the one with no hands, were beggars I had found in the bazaar. It seems to me that it is best to keep your actors in a daze so that they are malleable like wax. As to the necessary accessories, in the first couple of months we received help from no one. We did not even have a letter of introduction. So we were planning to return to Iran.
Who was supposed to give you such a letter?
Well, the Kurds of Iraq had their own independent government and the police could have prevented us from filming. We needed a permit. At the height of despair, one day I saw Barzani by chance. I told him our predicament and asked for his help. He said they had no tents or tanks. I personally went and bought tanks for 25 dollars each.
Who did you buy them from?
From smugglers. They melt these tanks and then take them to Turkey and Turkey sells the raw material to Europe. This is a story by itself. I wanted to make a documentary about it.
How much did you spend on tanks?
Some twelve thousand dollars for the tanks you see in the camp. We also had to pay for cranes for their transportation and that meant a great deal of money. The smugglers agreed to bring the tanks on the scene provided we would give them back for free once the filming had ended. We did finally manage to get tents from the Barzani government. The news of our filmmaking soon spread everywhere. Even the Al-Jazeera television network announced it. One day, twenty to thirty suicide volunteers showed up and set up an inspection office there. I was scared. I was unable to concentrate on the first days of filming. I was watching for hand grenades. But then we got so involved in our work that we did not pay much attention to our safety. Still, I had nightmares in my sleep. The place was full of different parties opposing one another and we were a good subject for making news. The suicide volunteers were watching us night and day until our film began to take shape. We received no help whatsoever from Iran or any other government. The film was made thanks to loans I managed to get from a couple of banks and the noteworthy help of my uncle as well as the help of the Kurdish people, that is the crowd you see in the film.
How did you manage to get loans from the bank?
They were personal loans. Farabi Foundation did not give me any loans. In the end, however, we gave all rights to Farabi at a price that I think was very advantageous to them. We also received some money from Iraq for the rights of showing the film for 25 years. But all in all, the film was made with a very meagre budget.
One of the advantages of your film are the children who not only act well but have beautiful voices in addition. How did you find them?
I found some of them by chance. For example it was not intended for Satellite’s Assistant to have a cane. But when I saw the children it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to give one of them the role of Sattelite’s assistant. I saw so many fascinating children there that I kept adding to the number I already had. We formed four groups and got ourselves four cars and roamed all over the place from nine in the morning till midnight.
Within a month and a half we had visited all the towns and villages of Kurdistan. Each group had a camera. We began filming the children: the blind child in Karkook, Agrin in Suleimanieh and we found the other children in various other places.
Looking after all these children away from their home and family must have been a very difficult task?
We had a special permit to do so. The child with no hands came with his elder brother. The blind child was accompanied by his family of eight, all of them blind. We rented a house for them. Agrin had come from Suleimanieh with his brother. There were daily fights and threats to leave! The main location was near Karkook. The field covered with cartridge shells was near Karkook and the weapon-market and satellite bazaar in Arbil. All locations were where I had seen them before. Everything you see in the film was re-created and there is not a single “natural” scene in the entire film.
How many sessions of filming did you have?
In the two months and twenty days that we were there, we had about fifty-four sessions because we were constantly waiting for cloudy and misty weather. The film was meant to have cloudy and misty weather all through. We had a rough time, but we worked well.
In what seasons did the shooting of the film take place?
Although we wanted cloudy weather we did not want snow. We worked in October, November and December. What took up most of our time were the accessories. We needed a helicopter. It took us a couple of months to get one for an hour or so and one more hour for those American tanks that the Barzani government managed to get for us. We had daily meetings in Moussel and Baghdad until they finally agreed to cooperate with us. This meant continuous comings and goings and stopping the filming just when we were in the right mood and state of mind. We would be told that the Commander wished to see us. This meant some six-hour ride to make it to the meeting. Maybe this is not the right word, but to be in our business is like being a labourer. You have to do everything yourself.
And all this to get two helicopters and that military convoy?
Yes, fortunately we were given those without having to pay for them. They would ask about the plot and we would tell them that making the film was to their advantage and that without getting all emotional, important issues at stake were discussed in the film.
How did you manage to shoot the scene where that huge crowd walks towards the hill? With a single camera?
That scene was rehearsed twice or more and we had two cameras. Yet we used the second camera, an old one, only once for a scene. For the rest, we used the main camera. And we rehearsed for two or three times with the crowd.
What were your techniques for realizing that grand scene?
I took an amplifier with me to the scene. There were some eight thousand people on the scene. I told them that I would count three and that they should proceed to go up on the hill. Once there, I would ask them to stand up like trees. Then I would ask them to come down and I would remind them to try and catch the leaflets dropped by the helicopters. During practice, the result was not satisfactory and we had to repeat practicing more than twice. But while filming it was no longer possible to repeat the scene. Had that scene been spoilt in the laboratory, it would not have been possible to re-take it.
Were there any spontaneous scenes, which just happened and which helped to improve the film?
Many sequences were created on the spot. On the other hand, I took off many good scenes off the script. For example Agrin’s dream of flying. We used 34 reels of film for that sequence, and it was not a bad sequence, but I decided to take it off because it was not in harmony with the rest of the film. In this scene Agrin wants to fly in order to commit suicide. His brother tries to prevent him and takes hold of his hand and they fly together. The camera shows this scene from inside the helicopter. In Kurdistan’s magnificent nature this turned out as a beautiful and surrealistic scene. There were other scenes that were good but that I had to be cruel and take them off. With those sequences, the film would have been 135 to 140 minute-long.
In a way, the main theme of the film is about suicide. From its very first scene when Agrin wants to throw himself down the hill until the end. Why have you chosen death and so much blackness for your film?
I had gone to Iraq to make an anti-war film. The film needed to be bitter in order to shock the spectator and not let go of him. I gave a great deal of thought as how to achieve my aim. Had I shown all the bitter realities of the place perhaps the spectator would perhaps not been influenced as I wished it and maybe he would have detested the film. Therefore I added some comic-relief in the form of satire to the story to prevent the film from being too bitter. Now when you leave the theatre as a spectator you will not forget its tragedy. You might also say how funny that child was.
The character of Satellite seems to be a symbol of the children who are fascinated by the West. Does this character have an outside embodiment?
Minus the fascination, the inner character of Satellite and all his tomfoolery in a way represent my own childhood. The first day I started writing about the personality of this character, I meant him to act as a needle and saw the comedy and the tragedy of the film together. The spectator is meant to feel close to this character. For me, Satellite gives a certain taste to the film. I said to myself that I wanted to make a special film, for example about children who were mine sweepers. I decided to have a child without arms who would still be a mine sweeper. Or I thought that the death of Agrin and her child ought to take place underwater. I gave thought to every single event. I wanted the children not to resemble Iranian children. The characters in our Iranian films are all the same. How can we prevent this repetition? I decided that from the choice of the location to the choice of the story and the players must be all different. That my story should not be a straightforward one.
How come the people in the camp accept whatever Satellite says and believe in him?
Because he knows a couple of foreign expressions. They believe in him because they are simple villagers. The people in the camp are there so that in case of bombing, they can seek refuge in Iran. Satellite gathers some children around himself and that in a land where anyone can be the ruler or be a kind of dictator like Saddam. This was a trick to help the comic vein of the film. Right now it is the children who write other people’s letters and after attending school for two or three years become teachers.
One of the strong points of Turtles… is its filming. How did you get along with your Director of photography?
Shahriar Assadi is one of the most experienced assistant photographers in Iranian cinema. Our friendship started while working on Kiarostami’s And the Wind Will Carry us. I was Kiarostami’s assistant at the time and he was Mahmoud Kalari’s assistant. Saeed Nikzad was my Director of Photography in my first full-length feature film. For my second film, Nikzad shot half of the film and then quit because of personal problems and Shahriar Assadi filmed the rest. Assadi is well-acquainted with technique. He is very fast and so very near my rhythm. His trust in me is such that he never questions anything I say.
From the lighting point of view, you have successfully managed to have your entire film in dark and lead colours.
We spent a month in Tehran testing those colours. We wanted to create a cold, tarnished and desolate atmosphere. As a result we worked with a Fuji 500 at night and a Kodak 100 during the day.
How did you manage the soundtrack?
I knew that Bahman Bani Ardalan was one of the best in that field and I had always wanted to work with him. He had had experience with Dolby soundtrack in Duel and I liked that soundtrack very much and considered it up to world standards. For my film we had a Nagra recorder and a DAT as well as different microphones. When I told the plot of my film to Bahman he knew all the equipment we needed for the soundtrack.
Did you use a special camera for underwater filming?
The Kurds had a highly professional camera which had come from Turkey and we borrowed it for a couple of days. In the mid-January cold, Shahriar, his assistant and I went into a pool. We had no oxygen tanks. We had placed the camera in a heavy steel container weighing three to four hundred kilos. Each time we went into the pool, we only had a few seconds to shoot. I knew Agrin could stay under water for 25 seconds. It took us a long while to shoot that sequence. We used up ten sixty-minute beta digital reels of film in order to get that scene right. Then, with the help of a computer, we tarnished the images to give it the colour of a pond.
Considering the meaning of the names you have given your actors and their characters, the names seem to be very apt.
Kurdistan is full of extraordinary names with strange meanings. There is such a profusion of cinematic names that it is hard to choose between them. But since I was familiar with those names, it was not too difficult for me to do so. The character of the foreteller child took shape gradually in my mind, like the other characters in the film. I wanted to make a bridge of some sort to the future in this film. I therefore needed a foreteller. War news was of the utmost importance and whether and when Saddam would fall from power was a question of life and death. Everyone was making predictions. All kinds of gossips followed those predictions. I think that people in the Middle East are obsessed with predictions.
The prediction at the end of the film is in fact a conservative and double-edged one. Is it not?
No, it is not conservative. It is quite simple. That’s why I said in 275 days so that the spectator does not lose touch with the film and so that he writes it down in his diary to see what happens then. I could have given another title to my film, such as Love, Road, but it would soon have been forgotten. Five thousand films are made yearly and their title resemble each other.
Don’t you think that the young age of the protagonists – like Satellite who is after Agrin – make the film somewhat not very credible?
Not at all. I have personally experienced these things and they are quite ordinary in Kurdistan. Asking for a girl’s hand at that age is quite normal. However, the main part of the film reflects my inner-self. Satellite and Agrin are in a way the people around me and there are many such people in the area.
There is a particular outlook on the Americans in the film that might not be shared by other people in other places. Does this position reflect the feelings of the Iraqi-Kurds?
The outlook belongs solely to the filmmaker. Many Iraqi-Kurds like America. Anyway, America destroyed a killer like Saddam. But it could have done so without a war since Saddam was its own pawn. I object to the presence of Americans in Iraq. For years now there have been war and killings and bloodshed in Iraq. Iran and all the countries of the Middle East object to the American military presence in Iraq. I do not believe that the Americans will ever do anything positive for the Kurds. I feel that they are playing a political game. Like many other Kurds, I am deeply suspicious of their intentions. But other Kurds who are not so deeply involved in such issues like America. Most children born in Iraq bear such names as Colin or George. In some remote villages there are coffee-houses which are called “Mr. Bush’s Coffee-House”! This shows just how much the Kurds have suffered under Saddam so that America to them is their guardian angel. But America is certainly no guardian angel.
In that case we might say that the film reflects the range, from love to hatred, of the feelings of all Kurds, with different ideas and ideals, towards America.
It is not the outlook of the Kurds. It is my own personal views and those of some others. I do not use slogans in my film. I show the present lifestyle of the Kurds. Mine is not a political film and if I see things through politics it is because elements such as war and politics have become part and parcel of the culture of the Kurds. The meaning of the names given to Kurdish children is “Mine”, “Sick”, “Homeless”, “Run”, “Escape” and that sort of thing. All names have to do with war. Have you ever heard of anyone called “Mine”? It is quite incredible. In some far away village a child is named “Dick Cheney”, meaning that Dick Cheney wants to save the Kurds! Just try and imagine how they must have suffered under Saddam.
So far, all the main protagonists of your films are the disabled. How much longer are you going to get involved in their lives?
In a society with such a profusion of disabled people why should we only be concerned with the physical aspect of someone? That armless child and that blind child are the most beautiful people I have ever seen. Why should I refrain from portraying them? And why think that I am only trying to arouse people’s pity towards them? If I wanted this, I could have put a couple of children in my film and managed to make the spectators cry from beginning to end. I am not after that kind of cinema, I am after the spectator/cinema, I m after a particular story. I know how to make tear jerkers and attend some film festivals and sell my film and then live it up. Why is it then that I go through so much sufferings and do not even recover my invested money?
How do you evaluate your place in the Iranian cinema?
I am an Iranian-Kurd filmmaker and I want to help 35 million Kurds. We lacked filmmakers. Some efforts were made here and there but those were hardly sufficient for 35 million Kurds. We need to have one film made in Kurdish yearly. I am indebted to Iranian cinema and have learned from it. But above all I am a Kurdish filmmaker.
Iranian filmmakers whose works appeal to the general public believe that you make films for foreign festivals and that they have nothing to do with our society.
That’s interesting. Maybe it’s because they make very good films for the populace. Anyway, I had not heard this. But I believe that we must allow those want to make films for the general public to do so. And then of course anyone is free to express his opinion. But more often than not we seem to forget Sistan and Baluchistan, Ilam and West Azerbaijan or the deprived areas of the South. I believe that people who say such things are either indifferent to those areas or else think that we should not portray the lives of the deprived populace. In any event let us not forget that 90% of the Kurds of the world, especially in Iraq, live under the poverty-line. I maintain that those friends who like to make popular films have not to this day made a film using professional elements as I have done in Turtles Can Fly.
In any event you are accused of making films to please international film festivals.
Well, it’s not so bad to make films for international festivals. Let them talk. But I want to make films for the people. I allow 10% of the film to show my own apprehensions and 90% to show those of the people. Cinema is an industry. If I only wished to give voice to my own inner-preoccupations I would have organized a conference. But when you spend three hundred million for a film, you must think of the people. First I give thought to my own problems and then extend those problems from the tribal to the national and from the national to the international. I want a film that goes out of Iran to other lands to have the correct structure, a good soundtrack, etc… and I wish to follow a different path.
The problem of finding a distributor for such films, in a world dominated by commercial films, must be of the utmost importance. What do you do and what will you do about this vital issue?
Yes. The most important element in cinema is the distribution factor. We spend all our money to make films and tend to forget that we must also spend money for the distribution. Cinema means good distribution so the film is seen. We have forgotten this and we tend to think that if our film makes it to forty international film festivals and if we become the super star of the Iranian media we have become an international filmmaker. But forty festivals and forty screenings mean that only twenty thousand people have seen your film. This is not the right way. We have to move towards cinema/industry. When you go to Cannes Film Festival and see Iranian films on the big screen with poor quality you feel ashamed. Why can’t we make films that are up to world standards? Why are Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige thrown towards Hollywood cinema? Because they are after cinema/industry and they are making money.