By Jeffrey M. Anderson
It's surprising that Samira Makhmalbaf's Blackboards has finally arrived in the United States almost three years after it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May of 2000. For one thing, director Samira Makhmalbaf's amazing first film, The Apple (1999), had recently played here, and many of us were looking forward to seeing what she would do next. For another thing, Iran was not considered "evil" at the time, and now it is.
Makhmalbaf is the daughter of the great Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Gabbeh, A Moment of Innocence, Kandahar). At age 17, she shot The Apple partly on video and party on government-issue film stock that her father had planned to use but donated to her. The film told of two real-life young girls who had been locked inside their home their entire lives. Makhmalbaf shot a half-documentary, half-poem describing their plight and their unique outlook on the world. Father Mohsen helped write the movie's "screenplay" and helped edit the finished film.
Mohsen performed the same duties on Blackboards, filmed when Samira was 19. (She's now almost 23.) Based on the greatness of The Apple, as well as three years of buildup, I was greatly looking forward to the new film. And yet it left me baffled and just a little disappointed.
Blackboards begins on the striking image of a group of teachers carrying blackboards on their backs on steep, twisty dirt roads near the Iran/Iraq border. Two teachers go off on their own, and the film flip-flops between them, chronicling their adventures.
One teacher, Said (Said Mohamed), comes across a huge group of nomads making their way back over the border into Iraq � though they've lost their way. He asks for food, but they have nothing to offer except walnuts. He offers to lead them in exchange for food.
But one old man with a bladder problem is slowing the whole group down. Said learns that he's waiting to marry his daughter (Behnaz Jafari) off before he dies, and so Said agrees to marry, if only to speed things up.
The other teacher, Reeboir (Bahman Ghobadi, the director of A Time for Drunken Horses), meets a group of children laborers, each with a heavy load strapped to his back. Reeboir learns that they're smugglers. He refuses to give up his job as a teacher; he follows the group and repeatedly tries to teach one boy to write his own name, despite the constant danger, running and hiding.
Like her father and her father's contemporary Abbas Kiarostami (The Wind Will Carry Us), Ms. Makhmalbaf has learned a respectful, intelligent way of storytelling. She plunges us into the middle of things, and we work out for ourselves what's going on by listening and watching. It feels natural and real, but you sense that something bigger is happening at the same time.
But that essentially is what's missing from Blackboards -- that sense of something bigger, some ultimate point. For a movie about teachers, it has a strange anti-education stance. Neither the nomads nor the "mules" have much use for education, and in fact, the teachers seem to be hindering the groups more than helping them. The symbolic blackboards come into practical use twice, once for shelter and once as a splint for a broken leg.
Perhaps Ms. Makhmalbaf is damning the Iranian society for its lack of interest in education, but that idealism is ultimately muddled; she doesn't side with any particular character against another.
One astute reviewer has already pointed out that every character repeats almost every line of dialogue at least once, and sometimes more. That can be hugely annoying, or it can also refer to the nature of teaching in which things are repeated again and again until they stick.
In one scene, Said tries to teach his new bride the words. "I love you." She ignores him and he doesn't know what to do other than give her a zero. That doesn't work, so he keeps giving her more zeros. These scribblings stay on the blackboard until the film's very last shot.
Thankfully, Blackboards shows that the young Makhmalbaf still has the skills; her use of landscape and sense of danger here are remarkable. I'd be wary of writing her off just yet. Let's just call this one a sophomore slump and cross our fingers for the next one, if it ever gets here. Hopefully by that time Iran won't be "evil" anymore.