Blackboards (2000)

Another film from the Makhmalbaf family, Blackboards is directed by Samiria, the daughter of Mohsen (The Cyclist) and Marzieh (The Day I Became a Woman). The film is a strange mix of straightforward drama mixed with just a twinge of satire, enough to poke fun at some ideas, but not so much to ever make the spectacles or conditions of the characters become amusing amidst their serious situations.

A roving band of teachers, each with a blackboard slung across their back, travel through the tough countryside of East Iran. The group eventually splits up and two men fall into two very different groups. Said (Said Mohamadi) agrees to guide a band of Iraqi nomads who have accidentally stumbled into Iran and are trying to return home. Reeboir (Bahman Ghobadi) takes up the company of a group of young boys who make a living as smugglers.

Both of the men spend their time trying to find pupils and insisting on teaching the populous something. Their attempt to educate is met with complete apathy. The young boys insist they’ve no desire to learn how to read or write and the aged nomads rarely say a word to Said. Far from being dissuaded or discouraged, the men persistently press on, giving lessons as the group treks through the rocky terrain.

What neither men seem to realize is how both groups are far too concerned with basic necessities to worry about the luxury of education. The nomads are lost and have little food; almost all of them are quite old as well, making the education seem foolhardy. Likewise, the young boys are too concerned with trying to evade detection and climbing through dangerous and narrow paths to see any value in learning.

In a countryside with such harsh living conditions conditions, people scrounging for the most basic necessities, the naivety of the privileged is that if these people could just be educated, their condition could be improved. But without a stable home, without any property or any area nearby where such skills as reading and writing would be demanded, the teachers come across as naïve, misguided fools, attempting to cure the wrong ailment.

If extrapolated, this tale works as a condemnation of the misconception that people are poor because they are uneducated. Perhaps they are poor because of their locations, or because they’re not even citizens of the place they currently find themselves in. Perhaps one should get to know the needs of the people before insisting that one knows what they really need: a good education.

And while Blackboards demonstrates these thematic ideas elegantly, on the literal level of the drama it becomes difficult to deal with characters that consistently remain oblivious to the folly of their mission. Even when their tool of education, the blackboard, is reappropriated to help the people survive, they fail to recognize the people’s primary goal of staying alive, blinded by their higher call to educate.

It might make for a more compelling drama if at least one of the teachers could some to such a realization. Instead, they come across as the stupidest characters in the film, dimwitted, unperceptive and causally ignorant of the circumstances of the people they seek to teach. It’s a good starting-point, yet Samira never progresses past the points made within the first thirty minutes of the film.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing

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