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Reviewed by Adrian Sim

Iranian Title: Takhte siah
Director: Samira Makhmalbaf
Writing Credits: Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Samira Makmalbaf
Cast: Said Mohamadi, Behnaz Jafari, Bahman Ghobadi, Mohamad Karim Rahmati, Rafat Moradi
Genre: Drama
Country: Iran
Language: Kurdish
Year Released: 2000
Runtime: 85 min

Young maverick, Samira Makhmalbaf, helms this depressing tale about the plight of the Kurds. For the uninitiated, she is the daughter of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of the most widely-regarded Iranian filmmakers of all time.

Like most other Iranian films, Blackboards shows a genuine concern for the human condition, specifically that of the Iranian people.

Much like Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s (Samira father) fable-like Gabbeh, Blackboards is infused with surrealism. Like Gabbeh, the rugged nature is an integral actor to the story and representative of the bleak lives led by the Kurds.

Blackboards is about two nomadic Kurdish teachers (Said and Reeboir) who wander around the near inhospitable terrain of the Iraq/Iran border looking for prospective students to teach…and hence earn their keep. Although Blackboards is about the problem of education among the poor Kurds superficially, it actually questions the real need for education among these Kurds. It can be seen in the following scenes…

1) Reeboir persistently tells a group of "mules" (actually children who earn a living out of smuggling stolen goods across the border) that education enables them to read, learn new things and make a better living. However, the irony is Reeboir himself, who is educated, does not make a decent living. He has to go around begging to teach people just for scrimps of food. The big blackboard that he carries on his back is both a burden and also a means of survival for him.

2) Said persistently tells his new wife, Halaleh (whom he married just to get some walnuts as food), that education is important. Yet we see him making a hard bargain with Halaleh’s relatives, who are not interested in what Said can teach, but rather what he can provide for Halaleh. In the end, Said has to part with his blackboard for breaking the vow of marriage.

What I thought most clever about the film was the underlying sardonic criticism (which some would have overlooked) that education is not as valuable as what Said and Reeboir made it out to be. Instead, education like marriage (as exemplified by Said’s marriage to Halaleh) is being commoditized as a means of survival than as a valuable asset among the Kurds. Sad but true.

Said and Reeboir essentially come across as "con men" in the eyes of the Kurds. Why? Because the Kurds know the ugly truth. Education doesn’t help them in any damn way. This is seen later in the film when the "mules" reveal to Reeboir they are actually educated. Clearly, being educated doesn’t help them earn a better keep.

Although meandering at times, Blackboards is a rare eye-opener and has its fair share of entrancing moments. Such moments are metaphorical.

The "blackboard" is a dialectical metaphor. In the film, it’s reduced to a mere clothes hanger, stretcher, etc. (the negative, LITERAL, reductive "object" meaning). Yet, the "blackboard" can also be seen as a means of protection from enemies (e.g., it shelters Said and Halaleh from the enemies’ shootout) and alleviance of physical suffering (e.g., it becomes a crutch for one of the "mules" who sprains his leg). It being used as a clothes hanger also goes to show how practical it can be (the positive "uses" meaning). The irony that the director wants to portray is evoked, which is that "education" has been ridiculously reduced to an object that is almost valueless in the eyes of the Kurds. The Kurds’ human needs and survival take precedence. Yet, we (the non-Kurds) hold education in high faith and have come to believe that it is something we cannot live without because of its multifarious uses.

What makes Blackboards even more remarkable is…it relies on its striking visuals to tell an emotionally-involving story despite the absence of a soundtrack. This is no mean feat!

Blackboards is not anti-education (as it may seem to be suggesting) but a pointed and scorching thesis of a wounded people surviving in desperate times.