An Austere Land With Some Poignant Human Beings - "Blackboards" Review

By Stephen Holden The New York Times

The stark, relentless images of exhausted travelers dragging themselves on foot through a treacherous mountain landscape in Samira Makhmalbaf's film "Blackboards" evoke an indelible and ultimately moving vision of humanity buffeted by the elements and by international political tides.

One word that might describe the world portrayed in the movie, filmed in the desolate highlands of the Kurdistan region of Iran using mostly nonprofessional actors, is prehistoric. But that description wouldn't be accurate. Modern weaponry has seeped through the crevices of this steep, arid wasteland where the ground is always shifting and the flocks of predatory birds circling the mountain peaks send out piercing, feral screeches.

The two groups of weary pilgrims that the film follows can expect to encounter any number of perils. Food and water are scarce, rock slides commonplace, and certain areas laced with land mines. The occasional helicopter can send these travelers ducking for cover, sometimes pathetically trying to hide by crouching in moving flocks of sheep and goats. As the travelers approach the border with Iraq, distant gunfire from Iraqi soldiers on patrol sputters ominously.

Ms. Makhmalbaf's film, which won the grand jury prize at the 2000 Cannes International Film Festival but is only now opening in New York, offers as bare and stripped down a picture of life at the subsistence level as Iranian cinema, known for its austerity, has ever presented. All the more remarkable is that the filmmaker, the daughter of the widely acclaimed Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf ("Gabbeh," "Kandahar"), with whom she wrote the screenplay, was only 20 when she made "Blackboards." It is her second film, following "The Apple," and it made her the youngest director ever to have an official selection at Cannes when it was screened four years ago.

As in so many other Iranian films, what appears to be extreme cinematic naturalism is also a path toward the mystical. Although the film focuses on individual lives, their identities, and the histories and situations of the groups to which they belong, remain deliberately sketchy. Even so, the selected travelers whom the movie observes emerge as poignant human beings. A little boy flees his group to chase a rabbit. An old man, who has been unable to urinate for three days, is tenderly carried into a shallow muddy lake and splashed with water. An adolescent boy who slips and injures himself on the rocks is picked up by another boy and carried on his shoulders.

"Blackboards" opens with a faraway image of a group of men slowly making their way up a craggy mountain path. As the camera draws near, they are revealed to have blackboards strapped on their backs. The men turn out to be teachers who have ventured from the valley into the mountain wilderness on an educational mission. To everyone they encounter they shout out offers to give instruction in reading, writing and basic arithmetic. Invariably their offers are turned down.

At a certain juncture, two of the teachers, Said (Said Mohamed) and Reeboir (Bahman Ghobadi), break away from the rest and take separate paths. Said encounters a tribe of around 100 nomads fleeing the border city of Halabtcheh where the Iraqi regime used chemical warfare to suppress the Kurdish population. They explain that they are searching for their homeland but have gotten lost. Accompanying the group is a lone woman with her ailing father and little boy.

Reeboir, meanwhile, falls in with a group of adolescent boys who call themselves mules because the bags strapped to their backs contain contraband goods they are smuggling across the border. Since they are always on the move, they say, they have no use for reading and writing.

While Said tags along with the nomads, the sick old man laments that he won't be able to die in peace until his widowed daughter Halaleh (Behnaz Jafari) remarries. After setting the terms of a meager dowry (his blackboard), Said agrees to marry her and, after a brief mountainside ceremony, the marriage is consummated in less than a minute behind the blackboard propped up in a pile of rocks. Meanwhile Reeboir befriends one of the boys in the pack and begins teaching him to write his name. The movie segues back and forth between the two teachers as their groups approach the Iraqi border with mounting trepidation.

"Blackboards" ultimately makes far more sense as a broad, blurred allegory than as a fictionalized work of social studies. But once you accept its don't-ask, don't-explain style of storytelling, its vision of humanity struggling blindly through the wilderness, the loose ends don't matter. This could be any and all of us forging ahead on the rocky road toward holy ground and a place to rest.

Originally Published December 6, 2002

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