Blackboards

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Blackboards

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The youngest in an Iranian filmmaking family, headed by the great Mohsen Makhmalbaf (The Sun Behind The Moon) and his wife Marzieh Meshkini (The Day I Became A Woman), Samira Makhmalbaf was only 18 when she made 1998's The Apple, which showed an early concern for the plight of disenfranchised children. In this vein, her modest but affecting follow-up Blackboards takes a hard look at the practical value of their education, especially as it brushes up against the more pressing and fundamental need to simply survive. Makhmalbaf opens the film with her most compelling and iconic image: a group of itinerant teachers, each with a blackboard strapped to his back, stumbling through a steep mountain pass in Iranian Kurdistan, searching quixotically for young pupils to educate. Willing to accept a pittance in cash or even scraps of bread for their troubles, they still meet with resistance from Kurdish adults and children, few of whom see the value of reading, writing, and multiplication tables when they're being fired upon by border guards. Convention dictates that Makhmalbaf find some sliver of salvation in education, but instead, she takes a refreshingly pragmatic and even humorous view toward the Kurds' desperate situation, which throws any conceivable lesson plans out the window. The blackboards in the film prove useful, but rarely for their intended purpose; they serve as camouflage from the helicopters overhead, a shield from gunfire, a splint for a broken leg, a hanger for wet clothes, and a screen between an impromptu bride and groom. After an attack from above, Said Mohamadi and Bhaman Ghobadi break off from the other teachers and head into the mountains, hoping to find some young shepherds near the top. Instead, Ghobadi runs across a gang of illiterate boys acting as mules, smuggling contraband across the Iran/Iraq border. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Ghobadi covered the same territory to superior effect in his directorial debut, A Time For Drunken Horses.) Meanwhile, Mohamadi escorts a group of old men back across the border to their bombed village of Halabcheh, but his bizarre arrangement involves marrying a sullen single mother (Behnaz Jafari) and submitting his blackboard as a dowry. Episodic and minimalist to a fault, Blackboards makes its ironic point about education, then makes it again a few times over for good measure, rarely expanding beyond its narrow seriocomic agenda. But within these parameters, Makhmalbaf sketches a stark yet disarmingly funny portrait of the Kurds, who persevere amid constant danger, forced into a nomadic existence that nonetheless finds them heading doggedly back toward home. Knowledge brings some measure of hope to their world, Makhmalbaf suggests, but survival will suffice under the circumstances.

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