Set in the region of Kurdistan in the aftermath of the Iran/Iraq war, Kurdish children smuggle goods across the Iran/Iraq border, skillfully dodging landmines. Teachers carry blackboards through the rugged terrain in search of students, but none have the time for such ‘luxuries’. It is food and shelter that they need. Kurdish refugees make their way towards the border in search of home, across the border in Iraq. But they carry the physical and psychological scars of war, many suffering from the devastating effects of the chemical weapons used against the Kurds by Saddam Hussain’s troops in Halabcheh in 1988. Situated somewhere between fiction and reality, the film contemplates the complex issues faced by displaced Kurds and their dreams of the return to and restoration of their homeland.
Following in her father Mohsen’s footsteps, Samira Makhmalbaf achieves a mix of realism and surrealism with this film. Blackboards is set amidst the very real, barren, war-ravaged landscape of Kurdistan in the north-west of Iran. Many of the film’s characters are played by local non-professional actors. The dialogue is predominantly spoken in Kurdish, and the film cogently addresses many of the very real concerns of Iraq’s displaced Kurds following the chemical weapon assault on the town of Halabcheh: homelessness, hunger, poverty, illness, injury and illiteracy. This texture of realism however is infused with a slightly surreal aesthetic and absurdist logic, which enables a level of indirect social critique to be achieved. This is evident from the opening shots in which the film’s major emblematic trope is introduced: the blackboard. The film opens with a long shot of a barren road, large hills on either side and mountains in the distance. In the very depths of the image, several small figures appear and as they move towards the camera it becomes evident they are men, carrying boards across their backs. As they move even closer, we realize they are in fact blackboards. Through their casual conversation, we come to realize these men are teachers who are searching the countryside for students.
Throughout the film, these blackboards come to be used for a variety of unconventional purposes: protective camouflage, a stretcher, a splint for a broken leg, a modesty veil, a house, a place to dry washing, and even an object of value in divorce proceedings, after which we may presume it will be used for fire wood, enabling cooking and warmth. The blackboards therefore become signifiers − literally and metaphorically − of the film’s major themes: literacy, displacement, danger, shelter, poverty, illness and cultural tradition.
Through this semantic slippage they become emblematic of the struggles faced not only by the teachers themselves, but by the various people they encounter. The first of these moments of slippage occurs within the first few minutes of the film. The teachers notice a plane flying overhead, they run for cover at the base of a nearby hill, and using their blackboards as cover, they hide until the plane has passed. As the teachers begin to emerge from their huddle, the camera cuts to a shot showing a flock of black birds hovering high in the sky above. The viewer might imagine they are looking for carrion − signifying death. As the film cuts back to the teachers, they inexplicably begin to imitate the birds, squawking and gently moving their boards as though they are wings. This subtle and inexplicable departure from a predominantly realist aesthetic prefigures the loosening of sign and signifier that will occur time and again throughout the film. Once it is safe again, the teachers proceed to coat the boards in mud, so that they may provide more effective camouflage. If the blackboards conventionally signify education, they now come to mean something very different: protection. Reading these two images together − as a kind of rebus − this opening scene may suggest that literacy is an enabling resource that may play a part in protecting a displaced and oppressed population. In fact, the rather surreal image of the travelling teachers bearing the tools of their trade on their shoulders could suggest that education is in fact a highly portable resource. However, as the film progresses this positive and hopeful attitude towards education becomes somewhat inverted, as few people in the region have the time or luxury for education. But the teachers are on a mission, unwilling to give up. We follow one of the teachers in search of pupils. No one he meets is interested in his services, but he pushes on through the rugged terrain until he meets a group of young Kurdish smugglers. He tries earnestly to convince them of the value of education, but they must keep moving, so he runs with them, negotiating the difficult landscape, conducting mobile lessons along the way. With this, Makhmalbaf appears to be suggesting that even in the most extreme of situations, education is possible and necessary.