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In a wartorn, mountainous area on the border of Iranian Kurdistan, a group of teachers wander in search of students they can teach. After an attack by an army helicopter, two of the teachers, Saïd (Saeed Mohamadi) and Reeboir, (Bahman Ghobadi) split off from the main group. Reeboir meets a party of boys carrying stolen goods to be smuggled across the border; he tries to persuade them to accept him as a teacher. Meanwhile, Said joins up with a tribe of nomads from Iraq and offers to lead them to the border in exchange for walnuts, then uses his blackboard as dowry to marry Halaleh, (Behnaz Jafari) a woman in the tribe who's a mother with a young son.

Any review of Blackboards is bound to start from that incredible (almost too rich) opening image. We see these barren mountains with army helicopters circling overhead, like something out of a Star Wars movie; and over them a horde of dusty men come swarming like beetles, with blackboards strapped to their backs, searching for someone to receive their message of learning. The idea of intellectuals attempting to communicate with ordinary people – a theme in numerous recent Iranian films, including several by the great Abbas Kiarostami – is replayed here in an almost derisory way. These would-be teachers have only the most basic training, and seem still more confused and desperate than the refugees they encounter. And what place is there for schooling anyway in this rocky wilderness? It's baffling that Samira Makhmalbaf's beautiful first feature The Apple (which was close to a masterpiece) didn't get a release in Australia; Blackboards is a worthy follow-up but purposely lacks the immediate warmth and charm. Harshness, poverty, disorientation define its form as well as its subject. The characters repeat themselves like malfunctioning computer programs; any progress made is oblique – everyone seems to be wandering round in circles, and we rarely know where the different groups are in relation to each other. Like The Apple, Blackboards starts off in near-documentary mode and gradually moves into abstraction – the mountains are an actual physical place, but also an increasingly nebulous border zone as stark and bare as an absurdist stage set. As I read the film, it's all about the struggle to survive – and maintain culture, meanings, human connections - in a landscape that literally gives you almost nothing to work with. (Hence the running gag about maximising your resources – a blackboard can be converted into a shield, a washing line, a stretcher, etc.) No doubt there are political implications too, but Blackboards shouldn't be reduced to either social realism or coded allegory. Like most of the best Iranian films I've seen, it manages to suggest meanings on any number of levels without ever being pretentious or clumsily symbolic.
Jake Wilson

I am glad that Jake (above) gets such satisfaction from this film, which has been generously praised elsewhere by critics. Sadly my own response is one of disappointment; had I not heard the acclaim, I may have expected - and settled for – less. The 20 year old filmmaker relies on the most basic forms of technical and dramatic elements, from hand held camera and wind-distorted sound, to local villagers as performers. To me, there was absence of meaning – even on a single level. The view that the film is about the struggle for survival in an depleted terrain and amidst persecution may be valid – but there are much more potent ways of making a film about those things than this. There is no doubt that we see a rarely glimpsed aspect of Kurdish depression; there are keen visual moments, such as the opening shot. But these do not evolve into a coherent or even confronting picture for me. The amateurish filmmaking is unforgiving in that it rests on novelty value alone.
Andrew L. Urban

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(Takhte siah)

CAST: Bahman Ghobadi, Said Mohamadi, Behnaz Jafari

DIRECTOR: Samira Makhmalbaf

PRODUCER: Mohsen Mahmalbaf, Marco Muller

SCRIPT: Mohsen Mahmalbaf, Samira Makhmalbaf


EDITOR: Mohsen Makhmalbaf

MUSIC: Mohamed Reza Darvishi

RUNNING TIME: 85 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: June 28, 2001 (Melbourne), September 13, 2001 (Sydney)

Kurdish with English subtitles

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