... And Life Whimpers For Breath In This Barren Land

A Review of BLACKBOARDS (2000)
Director: Samira Makhmalbaf

He climbs the rocky slopes, clutching a black plank of wood across his back. He is starving and tired, but has a burning desire to quench the thirst for knowledge of anyone who needs it, and all he wants in return is a scrap of bread and some water.

Sayid is a teacher, with no belongings except his treasured blackboard and some chalk. He and his colleague Reeboir, just two of an entire group of teachers, have only one desire in life: to teach math and Arabic to anyone who is willing to learn. They scale the barren cliffs on the border between Iran and Iraq, in constant danger from war-bombs, carrying their blackboards like Christ's crosses (Click here for relevant article.) As they keep one eye on the narrow slopes, the other on trigger-happy soldiers, and separate from the group and each other, the future looks bleak. None of the people in any of the villages in the valley seem to want an education, as they're too busy being frightened for their lives.

Samira Makhmalbaf made Blackboards when she was just 20, no mean feat despite being the daughter of acclaimed Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The film, her second feature after the controversial Apple (click here for related article) which she made when she was barely 18, is both poignant and disturbing.

Sayid meets a group of elderly Kurdish men searching for the road to Iraq, while Reeboir joins a group of young Kurdish boys smuggling goods over the border. The film is actually quite humourous in the beginning; it's a strange feeling to laugh when the characters onscreen are hungry and tired and have absolutely no idea that they're being funny.

The elderly men are struggling to get one of the members to urinate, and he is in agony. Sayid joins the group despite many protests, and persists in asking them if anybody is interested in learning to read and write. He becomes a nuisance, and nobody is willing to share their scanty reserves of food or water. Finally, a deal is struck when Sayid agrees to take them to the Iran-Iraq border for forty walnuts. Thus he becomes a strange part of this pious and elderly Kurdish group.

The old man, who is unable to urinate, is suffering and wants to get his daughter married off so he can die in peace. Thus one of his acquaintances decides to get the old man's daughter Haleleh married off to Sayid. The nuptials are hurriedly performed without ceremony, with Haleleh barely concentrating as she tends to her young son. Thereafter Sayid tries to teach Haleleh to read and write 'I love you', but she always ignores him.

In the meantime, Reeboir persists in trying to convince the group of boys about the advantages of an education, and all the while they're looking at him as if he's the idiot. However, One of them, also named Reeboir, shows a keen interest in learning, and a relieved Reeboir Sr. coaches him on spelling and pronunciation as they make their way along the perilous slopes. It is only when they stop to rest that the boys tell Reeboir that most of them do know how to read or write, but they're too busy trying to save their lives.

Sayid is finding hard to get Haleleh to talk to him, let alone say 'I love you'. Haleleh's father is still unable to urinate, while her son on the other hand, seems to be the opposite. Even a dip in the icy water of a nearby lake seems to do no good to the suffering elderly Kurd. Sayid meanwhile, tries his level best to fit into the group and woo his wife at the same time, trying to use the welcome pool of water as a catalyst.

Reeboir sets the fractured leg of a boy who falls off a cliff, but that still doesn't break any ice with the boys. They are all the more wary of getting close to him, except Reeboir Jr., who is still an eager learner. As Reeboir Sr stops to have some goat milk from a little girl - he tries to teach her too - his young namesake tries to spell his name. Unfortunately, just as Reeboir Jr. finishes the task successfully, he is hit by a bullet from the nearby border patrol. The rest of the group scatters wildly all over and many children are injured, some fatally. And no one knows what happens to Reeboir.

In another part of the border, Sayid manages to show the group of elderly Kurds the way to Iraq, but only after they refuse to believe him and almost get shot at in the process. Haleleh wants to go too, so Sayid is forced to divorce her and give her his blackboard as dowry. They walk off in opposite directions, and as the fog blinds them to each other forever, the words are still visible on the blackboard: I love you.

Samira has tried to show the rugged beauty of the barren, rocky border, and has openly showcased her sympathy for the displaced Kurds. Even the most heart-wrenching love is always touchingly funny, and the scenes featuring Sayid's attempts to woo his wife are just so. The poignancy reaches its climax in the last scene when Haleleh walks away with the blackboard bearing Sayid's words: I love you. It seems as if these words will continue to echo in the mountains long after Sayid's parting with Haleleh and his trusty blackboard, along with the echoes of Reeboir's voice teaching Reeboir Jr. to spell his name.

One scene especially, is searing: when there is more shooting on the group of elderly Kurds, Sayid gallantly hides Haleleh and her son underneath his blackboard. Haleleh's father finally manages to urinate, and this looks like a very strong moment of symbolism in the film, and we are just as relieved. For a while we are fooled into thinking that everything is over, that Haleleh will concede to Sayid, that her father is now all right, and that everything will be a happily-ever-after.

Unfortunately, we are reminded yet again that in the war-torn, mine-infested, barren beauty of the Iraq-Iran border - as on the borders of Israel-Palestine, India-Pakistan, Bosnia-Serbia - happy endings are rare.


karthik said...

Love the war themes , Subhangi :)? Where did you watch this movie ? Is it available on DVD?
BTW how come you didnt reply to my comment on Rand in your previous post?
Dint agree with it or...?

Subhangi said...

Hi Karthik

I watched it in college, it's on DVD. About the not replying to your previous comment, I admit I don't know much about Nietzsche, as I haven't read any of his works. As for Rand, I read her book about three years ago. What I liked about her philosophy were the positive attributes - the idea of non-conformism, about forging your own bridge if I may put it that way. I don't agree with her philosophy in its entirety. :)

karthik said...

Ok sorry got that wrong . I, have the unfortunate habit of heckling people who say they are "Rand followers". That is primarily becaue most of these people are the antithesis of what Rand espouses and I can have a laugh at their expense.