Blackboards is a distinctive and powerful Iranian film but it is also difficult to love.
Like many Iranian films that get released here in the United States the film has a strong neo-realist tone, a good humanist message and most of the actors are non-professional. But in this case the story itself is quite unique.
The film, written and directed by 20-year old Samira Makhmalbaf, opens with a whole group of men carrying blackboards (like crosses) on their backs high up on dirt roads in the mountains above Iran. The men are nomad teachers who travel between villages trying to find pupils young and old whom they can teach to read and write.
Right at the beginning the group splits up and the film follows two men. One named Said (Said Mohamed) goes down into a village while the other Reeboir (Bahman Ghobadi) goes up higher on the trails to find goat herders. In each case the men end up with a group of nomads who are trekking across the mountains.
Said meets up with a group of old Kurdish nomads from Iraq who are fleeing from the Iraqi military. They have absolutely no interest in being taught. But Said does meet a woman (Behnaz Jafari) whom he reluctantly marries along the way. The other man, Reeboir, meets up with a bunch of boys who are smuggling contraband between borders. Most of them show no interest but a couple of the boys show enough curiosity that he begins to teach them the basics; such as spelling their name.
The film combines the elements of realism with allegory fairy well. There too are a good number of scenes that deal with the practicality of blackboards in this environment. For instance, on certain occasions blackboards are used to hang clothes, used to hide under, used as a gurney, even broken apart and used as a splint on a leg.
Yet overall the film is difficult to love because despite the harrowing tale it tells it - at times – is simplistic and frankly has a good number of annoying characters. On the first viewing I couldn't get past some of the ignorance of the characters but on a second viewing it occurred to me that part of director Makhmalbaf's intention is to show us ignorant people who have suffered not only from the circumstances of their lives but from a lack of education.
The film ends up having a double message; one, is the importance of education and two, is the impossibility of education in the particular circumstances that these people live with. There is little hope.
The film is really well shot and utilizes the mountainous terrain along with the toughness of the trail by using hand held camera shots. The fact that it is directed by a 20-year old director (who really directed it – check out the DVD extra) is enough reason to watch it. The film won a Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2000 and went on to play in over 20 international festivals.
The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.66:1 with 16x9 capabilities. Every scene is shot outdoors, the lighting is natural and the locale is definitively brown. The film often has the look of a documentary.
Presented in Dolby Digital and Dolby 5.1 the sound is better than expected. The language spoken is Kurdish and possibly Farsi but the box doesn't mention it. The subtitles can be removed.
There is a very good 80-minute Making-Of Documentary by Maysam Makhmalbaf titled simply How Samira Made the Blackboard. It features a background on her, her amazing first film The Apple, her trip to Cannes in 2000, interviews and a behind-the-scenes look at Samira directing. This is an insightful documentary and a must for anyone interested in Samira or Iranian cinema. Other than this there are production notes, filmographies and a written interview with the director.
Blackboards is a unique film about the struggles of Kurdish nomads in the Iranian Kurdistan areas and the particular difficulties of a couple teachers who wander the mountains attempting to teach the nomads along the way. The film has a certain raw power to it that is realistic, humanistic and at times a bit frustrating. It is recommended with some reservations but if you are interested in Iranian cinema then don't miss it.