Samira Makhmalbaf’s rise to prominence in the West is an interesting example of the auteur culture in Iranian cinema. Her father, Mohsen Makhmalbaf is a celebrated filmmaker (Makhmalbaf Film House, 2014) and she rose to prominence at the age of 18 when her first feature The Apple (Makhmalbaf, 1998) was shown as part of the official selection at the Cannes Film Festival. She’s since won the jury prize twice at the same festival (Vick, 2010). I wondered if her renown as a filmmaker was deserved or if the celebration of her work by Western audiences has been buoyed by a desire to see a dynasty of Iranian auteurs working in art house film, a desire for that story to be true.
After watching Women Without Men (Neshat, 2009) and Makhmalbaf’s segment of 11’09”01 – September 11 (Makhmalbaf et al., 2002) I was intrigued by the premise of Blackboards (Makhmalbaf, 2000). Set in the 1980’s during the Iran-Iraq war and follows two male teachers, Kurdish refugees, who walk the Iran-Iraq border searching for pupils (French, 2000). Women Without Men centres, as the title suggests, around a group of women, but in Blackboards the protagonists are male. I was interested to see how these characters were written and presented by a female director and how their refugee status connects to the themes of the film. The location in which the film is set, the barren border lands between Iran and Iraq, also piques my interest, because it seems to be another example of an Iranian film set almost entirely in a location which is considered a non-place by most, but is nevertheless filled with meaning for those who inhabit it.
Blackboards is a very different film to Offside (Panahi, 2006), Ten (Kiarostami, 2002) or Women Without Men. By stepping away from Iran’s vibrant capital Tehran and into the desolate landscape of the borderlands, Makhmalbaf presents the audience with a completely different vision of Iran. But it’s no less a place of repression and endurance.
The film opens with a group of men walking along a lonely road in northern Iran. They each carry a blackboard on their back, they are teachers looking for pupils (and by extension, payment). These blackboards seem to be a burden, heavy and cumbersome, but they provide shelter when a military helicopter flies dangerously close overhead. Is this a metaphor for the conflict of the teachers’ lives? They struggle to find work, they carry nothing but their blackboards, no food, no water, no possessions, they are completely destitute. Yet they wield their knowledge like a shield to protect themselves from the mundane goat herding life into which they were born.
The reluctance of the people who they meet to engage the teachers’ services seems to border on fear. A fear of strangers perhaps? Or a fear of knowledge and what it might bring. I wondered if Makhmalbaf was subtly making a point about restrictions placed on the exchange of knowledge and art by the Iranian government, and the resulting censorship of Iranian filmmakers; does it stem from a fear of where this knowledge could lead?
Makhmalbaf’s film is almost exclusively male, there is only one female character in the entire film, a woman named Halaleh who is the daughter of one of the nomads travelling to the border with Iraq. I was interested to see how Makhmalbaf treated this almost exclusively male cast of characters, how she portrayed these men without women. But what struck me about watching her characters on screen is the type of males that she chose to portray. With the exception of the two teachers, all of the male characters are either elderly and infirm or children. And even the two teachers are impoverished and starving. All of these characters are marginalized by wider Iranian society, victimized by soldiers and forced to struggle with their burdens alone. So although there are flashes of the patriarchal oppression of women endemic in Iran, for example when Halaleh is married off without even seeing her future husband and then divorced just as easily, Makhmalbaf does not single out women as the victims. Instead she has created a film in which every scene is suffused with an atmosphere of struggle and oppression.
As with Makhmalbaf’s segment in 11’09”01 – September 11 I wondered what had happened to all of the mysteriously missing young males, and the other women and children who should surely be travelling with the elderly men. Towards the end of the film, as the nomads approach the border with Iraq, gunfire breaks out and Halaleh runs to protect her son. As she panics she talks to her new husband, Said, or maybe to herself about what happened to these women and children, and about a place called Halabtcheh. This is almost certainly a reference to the chemical attacks by Saddam Hussein on the Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988 (Simpson, 2012). Is this what happened to those missing men, women and children?
The same event is referenced again at the very end of the film. Said brings the nomads to the border, but they don’t believe that it’s really there, they think that he’s misled them. But he urges them on, saying that this is Halabtcheh, it just looks different, because of the bombing. The nomads move forward, giving thanks to have reached their destination and then disperse into a mist which bears an eerie resemblance to a cloud of poisonous gas.
In the parallel story of the boys who smuggle contraband across the Iran-Iraq border another teacher, Reeboir, tries to convince these boys of the importance of education. He attempts to sell them on the idea of being able to read and tell hundreds of stories, but one boy retorts that he already has a hundred stories. The boy proceeds to tell Reeboir a story about a time when he and his friends caught a rabbit, but rather than eating it straight away, one of his friends decided to torture it. The boy thought this was wrong, but was attacked and humiliated by the other boys for objecting. The boy seems to tell this story to Reeboir with a mixture of pride and fear, as if it’s the most impressive story that he knows. It seems horrifying that this story is the one that they boy chooses to share with the teacher and I wondered why Makhmalbaf wrote this scene. I wonder if the boy chooses to recall this event because it engendered in him the most powerful emotions that he’s ever felt. It seems to be another way of hinting at the melancholia and oppression of these boys’ lives, that this story is the best one that they have.
The two parallel strands in Blackboards work together to present a portrait of the lives of some of the lowest and most marginalised people in Iran. But Makhmalbaf’s film doesn’t feel like it has a narrative as such. I think that this partly stems from it being another example of an Iranian film which blurs the lines between fact and fiction, documentary and story. Makhmalbaf almost exclusive uses first-time actors and shoots in a naturalistic documentary style. It’s very similar in this way to Kiarostami’s work in Ten, even though the end result is vastly different in tone. And similarly to Kiarostami’s work in Ten, Makhmalbaf uses non-place to highlight the marginalization of the people who inhabit it. Blackboards’ mountainous landscapes appear so desolate that it seems impossible that anyone could survive in them, and yet they do, because they have no choice but to, they’re unwelcome anywhere else. Makhmalbaf explored a similar theme in her segment of 11’09”01 – September 11. That film also followed a teacher working in a desolate landscape, trying to expand the minds of her charges in the face of an uncertain future. Makhmalbaf’s repeated exploration of similar themes, characters, landscapes and aesthetics in such a thoughtful and thought provoking manner suggests that Western respect for her as an auteur is not misplaced.
French, P., (2000) Blackboards, The Guardian, Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2000/dec/31/philipfrench1 [Accessed on 14 April 2016]
Kiarostami, A., (2002) Ten, Abbas Kiarostami Productions
Makhmalbaf, S., (1998) The Apple, Makhmalbaf Film House
Makhmalbaf, S., (2000) Blackboards, Makhmalbaf Film House
Makhmalbaf, S. et al. (2002) 11’09”01 – September 11, StudioCanal
Makhmalbaf Film House (2014) Mohsen, Makhmalbaf Film House, Available from: http://www.makhmalbaf.com/?q=mohsen [Accessed on 14 April 2016]
Neshat, S. (2009) Women Without Men, Essential Filmproduktion GmbH
Panahi, J., (2006) Offside, Jafar Panahi Film Productions
Simpson, J., (2012) Halabja chemical weapons: A chance to find the men who armed Saddam, BBC, Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20553826 [Accessed on 14 April 2016]
Vick, T., (2010) Samira Makhmalbaf, New York Times, Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/movies/person/236829/Samira-Makhmalbaf/biography [Accessed on 14 April 2016]