In the wild borderlands between Iran and Iraq, people are on the move. Kurds, who suffered under persecution on both sides of the border, still live a nomadic life, often out of necessity. There is no food, no place to rest, no place to settle down. Their home is ancient, only it is now divided by barbed wire and armed guards.
In such a world, education is irrelevant. A luxury. When you are being shot at, the multiplication tables won’t help you. And reading a book? Who has the time to sit down and do that? Blackboards, the 2000 film directed by Samira Makhmalbaf (daughter of the famous Mohsen Makhmalbaf), is an absurdist and often very funny (albeit always bleak) look at the Kurds, seen through the eyes of a wandering band of teachers, who travel through the mountainous terrain with giant blackboards strapped to their backs. They are teachers searching for students. But where? There aren’t even towns here, it’s just mountains and landmines and crumbling stone structures. Although the teachers too are on the run (the sound of helicopters in the distance cause them to panic), they doggedly climb up and down mountains with blackboards on their backs, calling out to peasants, “Do you know how to read and write? Do your children know how to read and write?” They don’t need money, they will work for food. But nobody has any food here. Not even for themselves.
Blackboards doesn’t give us too much backstory about these teachers, although one mentions he is from Tehran. It is not explained why they are together and how they came to this barren wild part of Iran. The teachers split up, arguing about which way is the most dangerous. The two main characters, Said (Said Mohamadi) and Reeboir (played by hotshot director Bahman Ghobadi) have a moment at a crossroads, one going that way, the other going thatta way, and from that point on we follow the two of them separately. Reeboir runs into a group of feral boys who spend their short lives smuggling contraband in and out of Iran, loaded down with stolen goods on their backs like pack animals. They call themselves “mules”. And Said joins up with a huge wandering group of Kurds who are trying to find the border so they can go into Iraq. No one is stationary, so both teachers are forced to either follow along or barge their way into the quickly-moving groups, peddling their teaching wares to people who are flat out not interested.
Along the way (Blackboards, like so many Iranian movies, is about an endless wandering journey with no real destination), Said and Reeboir try to convince various members of the groups that reading a book is good, you can get a job if you can read, you can understand the world, and learning math is good so you won’t get swindled, etc. Nobody responds. They are all too busy. Too consumed with the bare bones of survival. Said and Reeboir are relentless. They don’t experience rejection in the way normal humans do. They just keep pushing. It’s endearing and also a little bit funny. Reeboir and the “mules” trudging through a treacherous landscape, with Reeboir calling out the multiplication tables, as he clambers over giant boulders. There’s a touching point here about teachers and the importance of education, I suppose, but the circumstances are so bleak that I found myself thinking, “Said, Reeboir, reading ain’t all that when you can’t feed your own child. Move along.”
The Makhmalbaf family is a powerhouse in Iranian cinema. Everyone is in the business. Mohsen Makhmalbaf is one of the great Iranian auteurs, who also set up a film school. His wife, Marzieh Meshkini, directed The Day I Became A Woman (an extraordinary debut – my review here), and also works on the crews of the other Makhmalbaf projects. She was the assistant director to her daughter on Blackboards. Samira herself made her debut as an eight-year-old in one of her father’s films. I suppose you could say she is like an Iranian Sofia Coppola. Her first feature,The Apple, won her much acclaim, and Blackboards put her on the map. She continues to direct, and was a member of the juries at the Venice Film Festival and the Berlin International Film Festival. She wrote the screenplay for Blackboards with her father. There are two other Makhmalbaf children, Hana and Maysam, both directors and producers in their own right.
Ebrahim Ghafori was the cinematographer for The Apple as well as Blackboards (he also did the stunning photography for The Day I Became a Woman), and most recently he shot Mohammad Rasoulof’s The White Meadows (Rasoulof, as you will remember, was the other Iranian director imprisoned with Jafar Panahi) and Jafar Panahi’s 2010 short The Accordion. The Blackboards shoot had to have been rigorous and dangerous. These actors are perched on the edges of literal cliffs. Much of Blackboards is handheld, the camera following the teachers through the various jostling crowds. This must have been, at times, harrowing. The paths are thin, with abysses dropping off to one side. There are no guardrails. The wind is ferocious. It is innovative and evocative handheld work, thrusting us into the middle of the action (and, at one point, into the middle of a flock of sheep), with a specificity showing Ghafori’s visual sense. The faces of the Kurds (most of the people in the film have no other acting credits) are memorable, haunting, humorous. Ghafori captures the absurd quality of blackboards strolling across a mountain, but he also is able to zoom in on the specific glances and moments that makes these people seem alive, rather than part of a faceless mass.
The symbolic nature of the wandering blackboards is a bit obvious, making some of Blackboards feel like a clunky undergraduate paper, but the work of Ghafori, and also the performances, ground the film in the real. Blackboards is full of images I have never seen before, imaginative, fantastical, like something out of a dream. Reeboir, with the mules, finds one little boy receptive to learning to read, and so the lessons commence when the group stops for a rest on an outcrop of rocks. (The little boy is so adorable and so unselfconscious in front of the camera you want to hug him). Reeboir begins teaching him his alphabet, and the lesson continues on for the rest of the film, as they tromp across the borderland. “A FOR APPLE” shouts Reeboir at the head of the line. The little boy, burdened down with contraband on his back, calls back, “A FOR APPLE!” And so on. Even when they are fleeing from gun shots from the border guards, you can still hear Reeboir calling out, as he hustles for cover, “A FOR APPLE” and somewhere in the crowd, you can hear the little boy call back, “A FOR APPLE.”
There’s nothing heartwarming about this. The situation for these people is dire. Most of the mule boys will end up being killed before they even hit puberty. They know this. They accept it. They have no options. They are still little boys, however, telling little fibs to make themselves seem tougher, and not being embarrassed when they break down in tears for this or that reason. But when Reeboir asks them if they know how to read, they all just bark back, “No.” followed by ,”You’re in our way, move it.” Education is not sentimentalized. If anything, it is ridiculed in Blackboards. How can any of it make a difference. (Samira Makhmalbaf herself dropped out of school when she was 15, because she thought her teachers were idiots. She then studied film with her father, and has never looked back. So I think there’s an interesting perspective on education and its value in Blackboards, something rather unexpected and personal.)
Said, meanwhile, with the wandering nomadic tribe, finds them even less receptive to education than the mule boys with Reeboir. Many of them are old and ill. There is an ongoing cliffhanger (of a sorts) involving a very old man who can’t pee. The entire group becomes involved in helping this man urinate, even pushing him into a river and splashing around with him to try to get something going for him. The old man keeps walking out of the crowd of people and stands by the side of the road, trying yet again, to pee. People huddle around him encouraging him. “If you don’t squeeze something out, you’ll die.” One man puts an arm around him and says, “Don’t be afraid. You can do it.” When the group sits around the fire resting, the old man’s urinary activity is freely discussed, people calling to him from across the circle, “Have you peed yet?” “No. No. May God help me,” answers the old man.
It is in small moments like that where you realize that the film really works.
The old man who can’t pee has a daughter, Halaleh (Behnaz Jafari), and she seems to be the only woman in the group. She has a small son. She is scowling and completely non-verbal, consumed with protecting her son (sometimes dragging him along by his collar), and also consumed with worry for her father, trying to pour water down his throat to help the peeing along. She is busy. These people are all busy. But Said takes one look at her and does a double-take. First of all, she’s the only woman. She stands out. Second of all, she is gorgeous, although rather terrifying in her flowing robes and headdress and unsmiling face. She has no time for romance. Said, a hustler, speaks with another man in the group, and offers his services: He knows the way to the border. He will accept 40 walnuts if he takes them there successfully. In the meantime, what about Halaleh? The man he speaks with immediately sets up a marriage between the two, in a scene that is both funny and tragic at the same time. The matchmaker tells them they can’t look at one another until they are married, so he places the blackboard between them and then performs the marriage ceremony. It is unclear what Halaleh might think of all of this. She is busy rubbing her son’s feet on one side of the blackboard, and only grunts in response to the questions being put to her. Said promises to love and protect her. Halaleh couldn’t care less. The scene is hysterical and absurd.
During a rest-stop, Said, obviously wanting to consummate his new marriage, places the blackboard across an opening in a small stone wall, so it becomes a door to the makeshift honeymoon suite. He picks up Halelah’s son, plops him on the other side, and then tries to court Halelah who cowers in the corner behind a rock. How does he court her? He writes “I Love You” on his blackboard and shows her the letters, telling her what they mean. I laughed out loud. He keeps trying to get her to say “I love you” back, walking her through each letter, but she stares at him sullenly and silently. Said is nothing if not persistent, and while he does say that he is going to give her a grade of “Zero” for her nonresponsiveness in his one-on-one class, he will keep working with her.
They don’t even know each other’s names. Halelah calls him only, “Blackboard”, and she barks it at him when she wants something.
The blackboards, while obviously a universal symbol of school, here take on many roles. Blackboards become a stretcher for the old man, a door, a clothesline, protective covering from the helicopters and border guards, and, at one point, a splint for one of the mule boys who has fallen down the cliff and hurt his leg. Blackboards seem useful for only one thing (the blackboard standing in for the whole, which is School/Education), but when push comes to shove they can be quite flexible. Like education as well. (This is what I mean by the obviousness of the symbolism). But it works, and there’s a playful quality to the flexibility of those damn blackboards that makes the film quite unique. The blackboards are in every shot almost, and they never look the same. Sums and alphabets scrawl across them, but in that wild borderland what that signifies becomes meaningless. You have to give it to those teachers, though. They do not give up.
No one has time to reflect here. Not even the teachers. Nobody bemoans their status. Nobody says, “Why are they shooting at us? Isn’t it so sad to be a Kurd?” They are practical people, humorous people, people who bond together, even to help each other pee. Like I said, the Kurdish question is a hot topic in Iran, covered in many films (many of which are banned), and one of the things I thought when I watched Blackboards was, “Good luck with suppressing these people. You’re gonna need it.”
At one point, Halaleh’s little boy wanders off the path to look at a rabbit and she loses track of him. She freaks out and walks back through the crowd, calling out her son’s name, going against the flow. Said, concerned for his wife, follows her. She finds her little boy and drags him off to the side of the road roughly, angry with him because he gave her a scare. Mother and son sit in the dust and share some walnuts. Said tries to talk to them both, his new family, but they give him apathetic glances showing some confusion, like: What … you’re still here? Although they are close to the border, and although Said is close to getting his reward for leading the Kurds there, he decides he’s had enough and stalks off by himself, the blackboard still draped with Halaleh’s son’s wet clothes. Halaleh calls after him harshly, “Blackboard!” When she approaches him, there is an extraordinary moment when she leans around Said to retrieve the clothes around his neck, and it appears that she might kiss him, although I knew she wouldn’t. But the closeness is breathtaking, intimate. And as she gathers the clothes, she says what are the only introspective words in Blackboards, the only time a character explains herself:
My heart is like a train. At every station, someone gets on or off. But there is someone who never gets off. My son.
As Said, Said Mohamadi undercuts the strangeness of his character’s persistence with humor and moments of confusion and frustration. He doesn’t know his wife, but he certainly wants her to be happy. Behnaz Jafari as Halaleh is ferocious, inscrutable, and achingly tender with her son in private moments. It is a quietly powerful performance, evoking the world of the Kurds in a way that no op-ed column ever could. It’s all in her face. These are war-torn people. They return to their homeland only to find it beyond recognition due to war and Iraqi bombing. Where should they go, exactly? And Bahman Ghobadi, as Reeboir, is wonderful and funny as the teacher shouting “A FOR APPLE” to his one willing pupil as they hustle away from the gunfire.
The final image, of Halelah walking off, the blackboard (her only dowry) on her back is powerful in a deeply mysterious way, the words “I love you” receding into the mist, leaving us out there in the darkness to reflect on what those words might mean. In this time, in this place, to these people. You don’t have to know how to read to know what “I love you” means. But Makhmalbaf seems to suggest that out in the Kurdish Wild West, nothing is quite what it seems. Everything has multiple purposes and multiple meanings, and you sometimes need to look twice to even understand what you are seeing.
Blackboards is a very effective film, expansive and yet deeply simple, brutal and yet very funny, with unforgettable images, one after the other after the other. You wouldn’t think I, sitting in my chair in the United States, would inwardly cheer because a Kurdish man on the border of Iraq was finally able to pee, but I did. I felt a small moment of triumph and happiness for him, thinking, “Good for you, bub. That must have felt awesome.”
The Kurds travel vast distances to get to a homeland that is no longer there. The mountains and abysses are deceptive, making things seem either farther away or closer than they really are. But the distance, which is also cultural and emotional, is bridged with films like Blackboards.