blackboards (2003)


director: samira makhmalbaf

bahmain ghobadi, said mohamadi, behnaz jafari

The first image we see in Samira Makhmalbaf’s Blackboards is a stunning one: a group of men walking through a dusty mountain pass carrying blackboards on their backs. They’re itinerant teachers, looking for pupils in the Kurdish territories on the border between Iran and Iraq. They talk among themselves, regretting their hard lives, when the sound of a helicopter sends them scurrying for cover. They hide under their blackboards in a gully beside the path, looking like beetles clustered under the harsh, ochre sunlight.

One teacher, Reeboir (Bahman Ghobadi) leaves the group and comes across a group of boys, smuggler’s mules who carry contraband over the border. Another teacher, Said (Said Mohamadi) falls in with a column of old men, trying to reach their homeland, over the border, before they die. Desperate for pupils, Reeboir follows the boys, pleading with them to learn to read, while Said marries the daughter of one of the old men, and tries to teach her and her little boy.

Helicopters and gunshots and the threat of chemical weapons menace both groups as they get closer to the Iraqi border. Reeboir sacrifices part of his blackboard to make a splint for an injured boy, while Said pledges his blackboard as a dowry to marry Halaleh (Behnaz Jafari). Both groups go back and forth, across the rock and dust, as if they’ve done this forever. It does not, as you can guess, end well.

Makhmalbaf’s film is a stark piece of work, full of this kind of bleak but remarkable imagery. It bring to mind - perhaps unintentionally - the world of Beckett’s "Waiting for Godot", where hopeless characters interact in a landscape where it seems that nothing can grow. It’s an austere, beautiful film, of a piece with the despairing school of modern Iranian cinema.