Samira Makhmalbaf’s Blackboards

In addition to David Lipfert’s 2002 wonderful December 6th analysis of Blackboards at www.offoffoff.com, I call attention to an interview with the filmmaker  at http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2000/dec/15/iran.culture.  Also see the website for a lot of information:  http://www.makhmalbaf.com/movies.php?m=18

In this analysis, I will first present some of my own ideas about the film Blackboards, then follow with information gleaned from researching the film on the internet, which is quite interesting.

While a lot has been written about Blackboards by film reviewers (see a couple referenced above), a few surprising elements of culture have really received light shrift and I’d rather write about those elements than reiterate the main points of the film.  Most attention focuses upon the teachers carrying the blackboards, which of course is the main thrust of the film.  However, the arcs of the story–which the teachers encounter/interact with–are the real interest factors of the film.

In general, however, the film concerns young Kurdish men who traverse the Kurdish countryside with huge blackboards on their backs looking for villages and pupils who will host them for a meager pittance or even just food.  One even laments that he should have listened to his father who told him to become a shepherd rather than a school teacher!  Two teachers soon become the focus of the film.  One, Reboir, heads up the mountain where he encounters a group of boys, mules; the other, Said, heads down to the villages, where he encounters a group of about 100 men, a woman and her boy, wandering lost in the countryside.  The countryside is rock, rugged, arid, desolate, dusty, uninviting, isolating—characteristics we soon believe can be attributable to the people encountered as well.  They have no time for the teachers.  Villagers slam their windows and doors.  The boys tell the teacher to get lost.  The wanderers just ignore Said’s constant pleas for something to eat or drink.  Everyone is dusty, tired, worn out.

Most commentators mention the mules, young boys carrying heavy loads of contraband goods across the Iraq/Iran border, without calling attention to why these boys eschew education for this activity instead.  In one scene, the teacher Reboir tells the boys they can learn to read and write, and thus read stories and newspapers and learn what is going on in the world.  But the boys do know what is going on that has an influence on them—war and strife that leaves them with no remunerative activity but to be mules and endanger their lives on a daily basis to make money for shopkeepers and dealers elsewhere, while the border patrols seem insensitive to killing off children smugglers.  Further, one boy says he already knows stories—and proceeds to recount a story of his own, hunting a rabbit and ensuing strife with a neighbor, a story that actually has relevance for the lives of these kids and their lives of deprivation and struggle, but the teacher says he means “other” stories, as if those other irrelevant stories would be attractive to the pupils.  As the film meanders with another teacher (Said) through rough-hewn villages, stony and primitive, we can understand that these boys don’t have a lot of options in their daily village/regional lives.  First, they live in a contentious zone—a border zone, a Kurdish area to boot, a zone that seems to have little but sheep and goats and stones.  There is no school and there is no real opportunity to utilize an education received.  Even when the teacher Reboir tells the boys he can teach them math to do sums so they won’t be cheated by the bosses for whom they smuggle—the boys just look at him.  Is there an alternative to being cheated?  Not really.  Unless they leave their area, which raises a whole other issue of being Kurdish in Iran in general, which the film doesn’t particularly address, only elliptically.  Kurdish repression in Iran (and Iraq or Turkey for that matter) is a whole topic that I can’t particularly address fully, but to say that ethnic and religious and political identity has been repressed, human rights violated, activists arrested and killed, and areas deprived of development due to ethnicity, etc.

Other commentators emphasize the group of men and one woman with her son who encounter the teacher Said, who comes to be known as “Blackboard”.  He has traversed village after village and is desperate, for something to eat, something to drink, for a pupil, anything!  What he finds are trudging old and middle aged men who seem aimless, until they reveal they have become lost and are looking to return to Iraq to their village they had fled from because it had been gassed by the Iraqis during the Iran/Iraq war  (you can learn more about this at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halabja_poison_gas_attack).   Blackboard says he can lead them, but for what in exchange?  After declaring they have nothing, nothing—not even a scrap of bread–finally they relent and agree on a bag of walnuts.

But Blackboard also learns that one of the old men is dying because he can’t urinate, and can’t die in peace unless he can marry off his (widowed?) daughter to someone.  Blackboard volunteers, though we don’t really know why.  Perhaps, after all, she is homeless and so is he.  What else is he looking for?  That remains unsaid!  They are married after the ma’allem gets Said to put up his blackboard as dowry, to confirm that he will take care of the woman and not leave her hungry, and then after pestering Halaleh who is distracted taking care of her son, she finally agrees to the match.  Voila, it is done, they are married.  Why does she accept?  We don’t know because the woman is left an enigma.  Is it because she is unsure whether her father will die?  But why not marry within her tribe?  Why marry a complete stranger who has only a blackboard—or is it that the blackboard is enough?  It is uncertain whether for sure the marriage is even consummated, but we do see Said create a makeshift blockade with the blackboard for privacy for himself and his new wife, but mostly we see him “educating” her on how to write “I love you” which she refuses to pronounce, and for which he wants to give her a low grade, like she’s one of his students.  During their trek, there is little to no communication between the two, except for Said constantly “educating” her and her unwillingness to respond except to cower under the blackboard when they approach a border and are shot at by guards.  In the escape, her baby son leaves the group and goes running off in search of a rabbit he’s seen on the hillside, she follows, and Said too complains that she’s left him.  Finally she speaks!  In essence, the subtitle reads, “My heart is a train that passes many stations, but stops at only one–my son!”  It is no surprise, then, that when the group finally reaches the village area, Said wants to stay in Irani Kurdistan while Halaleh wants to go back to Iraqi Kurdistan to her village, so they are summarily divorced, Said loses his blackboard, and drifts off into the mists.

So, what does this tell us about the situation of women in this region?  Country?  Having seen numerous Iranian films where women are shown deprived of their rights, this film at least gives Halaleh two very unusual rights—to decide if she wants to marry Said, then to decide if she wants to stay with him or not.  Usually marriages are arranged by the parent and divorce decided by the man.  However, that she is rendered so speechless throughout the film might be due to how little agency Iranian women in general are thought to have—though that is certainly changing—or might be due to the trauma of being from a village totally decimated by gas/chemical warfare by its own government—or perhaps both!  It is left to the viewer to understand or decide.

To be sure, this is an outsider’s view.  The teachers are outsiders looking to find a place to fit in—searching to be accepted by the mules, the villages, or the random wife.  Even the filmmaker admits she doesn’t speak/understand Kurdish and relied on translators for making the film—but that doesn’t diminish the other side of outsidedness.  Kurds in general are considered outsiders, some wanting to form their own country—others satisfied with the identities of the countries they live in, but still somewhat treated as outsiders.  Both the boys (Iranians) and the wanderers (Iraqis) are considered outsiders by the border guards who fire upon them.  Even the border guards are outsiders because we don’t even know which side they are protecting—are they Irani or Iraqi?  Finally, we are the outsiders looking into the film to learn something new about humanity.

Blackboards is Samira Makhmalbaf’s second film, co-written with her father, the famous Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and the film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Official Competition section of the 2000 Cannes Film Festival.

According to an interview downloaded from:  http://www.makhmalbaf.com/movies.php?m=18

Halabcheh is a city in Iraq, situated close to the Iranian border. The Iraqi government used chemical bombardment to repress the Iraqi Kurds.  The movie “The Blackboard” was shot near Halabcheh, on the Iran-Iraq border. The landmines planted in that area during war have never been removed and one of our problems during production was to know where we can walk and where there are no landmines. We regularly received information from the local villagers on the safe lands to walk on.

○ Is this movie also the story of the different generations of Iranians?

Yes, We see three generations in this movie. One is the young generation which is fertile and productive, but the older generations have done little for them and they have to do dangerous things every day to make ends meet. They like to learn, but that is not one of their choices. The second generation is the middle one: the teachers. They try to teach and benefit the two other generation from their knowledge and experience, but do not succeed. The third generation is the one with no patience to hear what the second generation has to say. It is too late for them to change. They walk their own path. Bitter recollections hurt their common memory and they walk their own path. The older generation is more patriotic than the two younger ones. They have reached the end of their lives, and just like a flock of fish in the Pacific Ocean heading to their birthplace when they reach the end of their lives, these old men leave Iran and go to Iraq to die where they were born.

○ The old Iraqi men leave Iran and go to Iraq, to die where they were born. When did they come to Iran?

They took refuge in Iran during the eight-year-old Iran-Iraq war, to escape the chemical bombardments.

○ Where do the teenagers come from, and where do they go?

Every morning, they cross the Iranian border and illegally enter Iraq, and smuggle something back in to Iran on the same day. To earn in of to make it through the day, they play with their lives everyday.

Apart from the woman who is a talented young actress doing both movies and plays, and the young teacher who is one of the directors of the new generation of Iranian cinema, the rest are ordinary villagers from the area.

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About sandrellita

I'm a film studies professor, fiber artist, potter and jeweler but my first love is cinema, thus this blog on cinema and culture.
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One Response to Samira Makhmalbaf’s Blackboards

  1. Edgar Hdez. says:

    Thanks for this analysis. I saw this movie in my semiotic class. I’m also doing some research to do my own analysis, and your text is great.

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