Hope for the hopeless - "Blackboards" Review

By David Lipfert Offoffoff.com

Among the Kurds of western Iran, the itinerant teachers of "Blackboards" literally carry their blackboards on their backs through the mountains where learning to read and write is secondary to staying alive.

Borders bring out the worst in people. They're man-made and arbitrary. But some people challenge them - like the Kurds. Spread out over the mountainous parts of four countries, their very existence is a challenge to the governments that host them. Kurds don't believe in borders, but they can't ignore reality either.

It's just not possible to cross from one country into another to follow grazing fields or to link up with relatives. Not easily, at least. Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran aren't exactly the friendliest of neighbors. Chemical weapons are but one of the dangers. Rounds shot from helicopter patrols and ordinary land mines are no less lethal.

But one person's problem is another's opportunity. One way out of these people's grinding poverty is smuggling. Young boys trade their youth for meager rewards. They risk their lives along dangerous mountain passes to bring goods to and fro from Iraq into Iran.

Enter a group of dedicated teachers. The opening scene of the film shows ten new teachers setting out to snare students. They must have exhausted easier possibilities or possess intense dedication. Wooden blackboards strapped to their backs, they climb among the mountains, dodging bullets themselves.

The film alternates between the stories of two of these teachers. Reeboir (Bahman Ghobadi, director of another Kurdish-theme film, "A Time for Drunken Horses") takes the high road up to the mountain peaks. Soon he finds a troop of "mules," boys plying steep paths with contraband goods on their backs. Mules of course are beasts of burden, and dumb ones at that.

The group leaders give Reeboir short shrift, but he won't give up. At a rest point he engages one of the boys then another with the alphabet. R-r-r-r echoes out across the treeless valleys. In an instant the mood changes when one of them falls off the path. The teacher puts his blackboard to better use - and half of it becomes an impromptu leg splint.

Reeboir continues to trail them to a spot where border guards are on the lookout for "mules" just like these. They infiltrate a herd of sheep and goats but the guards eventually pick them off. His class gone, Reeboir trudges on with his half of a blackboard remaining.

Saied (Saied Mohammadi) doesn't even end up with that much. He's attached himself to a band of nomads looking to cross from Iran back into their city of Halabtcheh in Iraq. Although they look like old men, they have aged prematurely. But Saied gets lucky because among the hundred or so, there is one woman (Behnaz Jafari as Halaleh). There's dirt on her face and a young kid in tow, but a woman she is. A perfunctory inquiry and equally perfunctory ceremony later, the group heads off under Saied's leadership.

There's just one catch that will come to haunt him. He's promised his blackboard as a dowry. But first it becomes a stretcher for the woman's ailing father, who hasn't been able to urinate for days. It's more use than Saied has gotten from it as a teaching tool. The people, tired, see no point in learning anything that isn't useful.

Borders also mean goodbyes. Saied will stay in Iran, the rest move on to Iraq. And his blackboard with the word "love" inscribed on it goes with them, on Halaleh's back.

So among these stunning mountains the two stories end. "Blackboards" shows a reality that everyone is powerless to change. Even these teacher-of-the-year contenders can't make a dent. Is there any hope?

Young filmmaker Samira Makhmalbaf doesn't answer that question, although her human portraits - all but one participant a non-professional - are compelling. Reason enough for carrying off a Jury Prize at Cannes over two years ago. The enigmatic script, which she authored with her father, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, doesn't offer solutions, a quality shared by most of their other films, Samira's first feature "The Apple" (Seeb) included. Still it's good to see the issues.

Although "Blackboards" has been called as a kind of documentary, many scenes are too choreographed to ring true. A hundred men don't simply appear from behind the rocks on a mountain face except on cue. Yet the reality portrayed is more than believable. (Filming was done in the border region but not exactly on the dividing line, which is accessible only to birds and wild animals.)

The jury is still out as to whether the Kurds constitute a nation worthy of a separate country. And the much anticipated large-scale U.S. military action in the region will not bring any resolution to that issue. We are almost guaranteed to see more work for the already overburdened UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), which co-sponsored an advance screening of Blackboards with The Film Society of Lincoln Center.

A final note: the title in Persian, Takhteh Siah, is singular but the distributors have translated this as the plural "Blackboards." Either way, it's a film you won't easily forget.

Originally Published December 6, 2002

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