Ask a follower of world cinema which countries are producing consistently interesting films at the moment, and many will nominate Iran. Over the last half-decade or so, Abbas Kiarostami (Close-Up, the trilogy comprising Where Is My Friend’s House?, And Life Goes On… and Through the Olive Trees, Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us) has become a director of world standing, and the work of other directors such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Gabbeh, A Moment of Innocence), Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon) and Majid Majidi (The Color of Paradise) has brought to the attention of Western cinemagoers. On the surface, Iranian films tend to tell simple stories, often involving children, and are almost neo-realistic in style with a complete absence of gloss. However, there’s more to them than at first appears: they often play sophisticated games with “fiction” and “reality”, and their use of allegory or stories about children is one way of evading the attentions of the Iranian censor. These films also give an insight into a culture most Westerners know little about, except in the most simplistic terms. Very little of the Iranian New Wave has appeared on DVD as yet. I’ll soon be reviewing Criterion’s edition of Kiarostami’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner Taste of Cherry, but in the meantime Artificial Eye’s release of Samira Makhmalbaf’s Blackboards is very welcome.
Samira Makhmalbaf is the daughter of the distinguished director Mohsen, and not surprisingly grew up in a film-dominated household. She first appeared on screen at the age of one month, and at eight played a leading role in her father’s The Cyclist. She attended film school at fifteen, and was assistant director on his The Silence. At eighteen she directed The Apple, a film based on the true case of a father who locked his two young daughters away from the outside world (with the real-life people playing themselves on screen), which made her the youngest director to have a film officially selected for Cannes. Blackboards is her second feature.
It takes place in the mountains of Kurdistan, on the border between Iran and Iraq. A group of teachers walk through this desolate landscape, their blackboards on their backs, in search of pupils, desperate to trade knowledge for basic subsistence. One of them, Reeboir (Bahman Ghobadi) finds a group of young boys who risk their lives smuggling contraband over the border. Saïd (Saïd Mohamadi) joins a group of old men, refugees from the seven-year Iran/Iraq war, who are returning to their Iraqi homeland. With them is one very ill man’s daughter, Halaleh (Behnaz Jafari), a widow with a young son.
Blackboards is a large leap in scale and ambition from The Apple, which took place in the streets of Teheran. Makhmalbaf makes good use of her bleak landscape (when visiting the region with her father, she chose the rockiest and most infertile places she could find). There are certainly metaphors to be had: the blackboards of the title get used in a number of ways, from shelter from aerial bombardment, camouflage, to a stretcher, material for a splint and even a wedding dowry! Although the setting is very specific, the story is easily understood. Makhmalbaf conjures up a time and place where knowledge is of little use, and not much more than a trading tool, and teachers – whose role is to guide and educate – end up being incapable of doing either. Makhmalbaf and her cinematographer Ebrahim Ghafori convey many striking images, and she gets strong performances out of her cast, most of them local and non-professional. The only professional actor is Behnaz Jafari, though Bahman Ghobadi has since himself become a director with A Time for Drunken Horses, due a British cinema release in August. Makhmalbaf was certainly helped by her father, who produced, co-wrote (he wrote the storyline, Samira the script itself) and edited the film, but her talent is undeniable.
Every Iranian film I’ve seen to date has been filmed in a ratio of 1.66:1 with a mono soundtrack, so there’s no surprise that this film and DVD follows suit. What is a surprise is that this is Artificial Eye’s second DVD to have a non-anamorphic picture: the other was their very first release, Time Regained. This is certainly a departure from this distributor’s policy, as previous films in this ratio (Beau travail, Rosetta,, Water Drops on Burning Rocks) have had anamorphic transfers. The picture is still very good, though a little too contrasty (I suspect a cinema print has been used for the transfer). There are a few dust spots, but no artefacting that I could detect. Particular circumstances might have been behind Artificial Eye’s use of a non-anamorphic transfer, for all I know – but I hope they’re not going to make a habit of it.
As for the soundtrack, it betrays its monophonic origins by a lack of dynamic range. The dialogue is always clear, though, and sound effects come over well, especially in the scenes of air attack. The subtitles are locked (which will only be an issue for those fluent in Kurdish) but are always easy to read. There are sixteen chapter stops. The menu features clips from the film, but suffers from extremely blocky artefacts.
The major extra is a very substantial documentary, How Samira Made “The Blackboard” [sic], a video diary by Maysam Makhmalbaf, the director’s brother. This begins with a fifteen-minute recap of Samira’s life and career up to the making of The Apple. There’s some engaging footage of Samira reuniting with the two young girls from The Apple. The rest of the documentary consists of interviews and press conferences at Cannes, footage of the shooting of Blackboards, all held together by Samira’s voiceover in very good, though inevitably strongly accented, English. The making-of footage shows us how she got performances out of her cast, such as wading into a cold river in order to persuade her cast of old men to do likewise. In the interviews and press conferences, Samira addresses such issues as the position of women in Iranian society. As she points out, it’s a country where a man can lock his daughters away from the outside world, but an eighteen-year-old girl can direct a film about it which gets selected for Cannes. There is also footage from film-school, which is fascinatingly different from either of her feature films. The documentary ends with footage of Samira accepting the Prix du Jury from jury president Luc Besson at the 2000 Cannes Festival. The documentary is full-frame apart from the film extracts and runs 73 minutes; unfortunately there is only one chapter stop. There is some artefacting in places.
The other extras include the trailer (1:24), which consists of two shots from the film interspersed with Cannes footage. The trailer is in a ratio of 1.85:1, wider than the feature but not noticeably cropped, and is considerably darker and more contrasty than the feature. The gallery shows a succession of full-screen stills taken during the production, joined together as a slide show, with music from the film’s soundtrack behind it. It runs 3:36, though you can’t help feeling that simple back-and-forth navigation would have been preferable, as the gallery does all the “page-turning” itself. The text interview with the director (by Mohammed Haghighat) is certainly interesting, though, though much of what the director says is repeated in the documentary.
To have directed one film in one’s teens is achievement enough. To have made two, and for both to win major prizes, is truly astounding. But no allowances should be made for the director’s youth: Blackboards is a remarkable film by any standards, and a good place to start in discovering one of the world’s currently most vibrant film industries.