The pursuit of knowledge is perhaps the most invigorating challenge of them all, yet the only knowledge acquired in watching the film “Blackboards” is learning how not to make a movie. The inexplicable winner of an award at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, this Iranian production is belatedly finding its way to North America in hopes of attracting cineastes who’ve been intrigued with the recent wave of challenging features from Iran. Unfortunately, “Blackboards” is about as much fun as a grouchy ayatollah in a cold mosque.
Set in the mountains of the Kurdish region along the Iran-Iraq border, “Blackboards” follows the misadventures of two shabby teachers in a vain attempt to find students they can teach. It would seem the teachers themselves are in need of real-life education, as they wander through villages of dismal poverty where there is no one even vaguely interested in their services. One teacher strangely attaches himself to a group of boys involved in smuggling contraband goods between Iran and Iraq. This teacher babbles endlessly to the boys about the joys and value which come from scholastic pursuits. The boys, however, barely tolerate this pompous pedagogue and struggle in vain to convince him that it is impossible for them to survive in this region if they abandon their smuggling work and sit down for schoolwork.
A second teacher falls in with a group of 100 old Kurdish men in a seemingly endless trek to their native village. Obviously, none of these elderly guys have the time or interest in what the teacher has to offer…yet he follows them along, constantly badgering them for payment in exchange for his seemingly worthless lessons. Somewhere amid these codgers is a pretty young woman who seems curiously unruffled despite the dirt and mud that her traveling party tramps through. She is the widowed daughter of one of the old guys, who is conveniently on his way to death’s door with the last wish that his pretty girl find a new husband. The teacher decides he would love to share some carnal knowledge with this fair lady, but the only possession he can give in exchange for her hand is the blackboard he carries on his back.
Where do we start with how “Blackboards” fails? The concept of teachers bringing education to people who either don’t want or cannot use school-smarts is peculiar, and “Blackboards” becomes thoroughly monotonous when it is obvious the teachers here will not comprehend that their services are not welcomed. It is one thing to be dull, but it’s another to watch a feature film about people who are behaving stupidly. One lesson from this plotline is that the teachers are a pair of idiots…but is that what filmmaker Samira Makhmalbaf really wanted to convey?
Placing the film in the Kurdish region of Iran also sends some fairly strange messages about the Kurdish people. As they are depicted here, the Kurds can be divided into exactly two camps: self-assured criminals (the kiddie smugglers who are harassed by one teacher) or pathetic victims (the old men wandering endlessly with the other teacher in futile pursuit). In a brief and rather strange scene, one of the teachers comes to a poor village and begins hawking his services at the top of his lungs. He is greeted with a wave of slamming windows and doors, with nary a voice of faint interest. What is this message…that the Kurds don’t want to be lifted out of their supposed ignorance and illiteracy? And how come no remarks about the lack of schools in the region? Is it because the Kurds don’t want to learn, or is it because the Iranian government does not want to educate its Kurdish population? (One can also question the lack of paved roads, indoor plumbing, electrical power, legitimate employment, and so on.)
Another problem with “Blackboards” (and one which will probably irritate those unfamiliar with Iranian cinema) is the acting…or the lack thereof. Iranian films tend to rely too heavily on non-professionals and “Blackboards” is populated with people who have no clue how to act. Nearly all of the cast for “Blackboards” was recruited from the Kurdish villages of the region, and it would seem this part of the world is in strong need of basic acting classes. Lines are screamed and spat with reckless hostility, accompanied by wild hand and facial gestures which seem more appropriate for a second-rate silent movie. After a few minutes, this gets terribly shrill, and for the length of the film’s 85 minutes it becomes a damn endurance test. The one professional performer in the film is Behnaz Jafari as the young widow amid the old men, but her idea of acting consists of sneering at her amateur co-stars with such abandon that it would seem she’s having a bad hair day under her imam-approved scarf. A semi-professional in this mix is Bahman Ghobadi, who plays one of the teachers and who also directed another Iranian art house stinker “The Time for Drunken Horses.” His performance is so one-dimensional that you wish someone would pound him with chalk-covered erasers.
But the main problem with “Blackboards” is the film’s intellectual dishonesty. The Kurdish people of the Middle East live in an area covering Iran, Iraq and Turkey. For centuries, they have been brutally persecuted by the ruling classes of these countries. In many ways, the Iranian Kurds living in dire poverty are the luckiest: the Iraqi Kurds have been subjected to poison gas attacks by Saddam Hussein’s military and the Turkish Kurds face imprisonment and torture just for speaking and publishing in their language. Ten years ago, the Iraqi Kurds took then-President Bush’s call to heart and rose up in revolt against Saddam Hussein’s oppression with the belief there would be support from American forces in the region. There was no American military support and the Kurdish people were either massacred or forced to flee to refugee camps in Iran where they still remain to this day. You may recall some all-star charity concerts conducted on behalf of the Kurdish refugees, although the results of those events added up to naught.
Rather than create a stupid movie about knucklehead teachers in unlikely adventures, why didn’t Samira Makhmalbaf create a film which genuinely documents the tragedy of the Kurdish people? Why isn’t there a film which highlights the work of highly educated and truly articulate Kurdish leaders who have been struggling for years to gain Western attention to the subject of Kurdish persecution? Why isn’t there a film which openly questions why the Islamic world refuses to acknowledge the cause of Kurdish self-determination (in stark contrast to the Islamic world’s support for Palestinian rights)? And why isn’t there a film that explains how the traditional enemies Iran and Iraq (along with their shared nemesis, the American government) share the horror of an independent Kurdistan emerging in this part of the world?
It is possible to tolerate films with rickety screenplays, bad acting and uninspired production values. But for any thinking person, it is completely unacceptable to tolerate films which pretend to focus on an important subject but wind up ducking and evading the hard questions surrounding the issue at hand. “Blackboards” is a failure as a badly-made film, to be certain, but its greatest and unforgivable failing is its absence of temerity in addressing the prolonged and never-ending human rights catastrophe facing the Kurdish people.