In the light of the recent stand-off between the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), who are battling for their curatorial independence, and the city of Busan, that is demanding greater control by the state; we pay tribute to the work of the BIFF, in particular, the publication of Asian Cinema 100 in October 2015. The book lists 100 important Asian films compiled by international film critics on the occasion of the BIFF’s 20th anniversary. The face-off began in 2014 when BIFF screened the documentary, Diving Bell (The Truth Shall Not Sink with Sewol by Lee Sang-ho and Anh Hae-ryong) that was critical of the government’s poor handling of the rescue operations of the Sewol ferry tragedy that killed 304 people. The mayor’s office and other politicians objected to the festival’s selection of the film. The freedom of expression requires that a festival be curatorially independent. This is the fourth of five reviews from the book. You can read about the book at www.biff.kr. By Philip Cheah.
If war is crazy, then the most passionate efforts to resist war must be equally crazy. This is perhaps the premise of Samira Makhmalbaf’s Blackboards (2000), a metaphorical fable of a people (Iranian Kurds) locked inside a warzone (symbolised by the rugged mountains) they live in, and seemingly unable to break free of the trap.It’s a trap of being in an endless labyrinth of winding and endless mountain trails in search of the border between Iran and Iraq. But what if the trap is all in the mind? And what would you need to free that mind?Hence the beginning surreal shot of Blackboards, where a group of about 10 out-of-work teachers are scurrying along a mountain road with their blackboards strapped onto their backs.
The metaphor is a direct one. As Makhmalbaf says, “Knowledge is a very heavy burden we have to carry.”Two teachers break free of the group. Said (played by Said Mohamadi) goes down to the valley, while Reeboir (played by Iranian - Kurdish director, Bahman Ghobadi), heads up the hill. Said meets a group of old Kurdish men from Halabcheh, a city on the Iraqi border, subjected to chemical warfare during the Iran - Iraq War (1980-87). Said agrees to take them to the Iraqi border.
“This is imagination and reality,” said Makhmalbaf. “It’s reality because there are some older generations that want to go back to their country to die. This is real. But an entire group of old men is imagination. Or the presence of just one woman is imagination. Or carrying these blackboards is both reality and imagination. Maybe it’s possible, if you’re a refugee, if you’re a teacher, what can you do except carry your blackboard and look for students?”Reeboir encounters a group of children smuggling contraband into Iraq. He wants to teach them to read and write, telling them the importance of being able to read a newspaper. How else to break the cycle of war if one isn’t able to see other worlds?Both teachers sense the desperation of their vocation and to teach at all cost. Said agrees to a marriage to Salalaheh (played by Behnaz Jafari, the sole female and sole professional actor in the film), just for a chance to teach her. Instead of their first wedding night, he sits her down before his blackboard for her first lesson.But as Makhmalbaf insisted: “The mountains also speak in Blackboards… the topography of Kurdistan will explain everything.” If nature persists, as the everlasting mountains attest then so do the old ways.In the final act, Said is divorced from Salalaheh, who wants to join her father in Iraq. In the divorce ceremony, Said is obliged to give her his blackboard. He has lost everything. Or has he? Will Salalaheh carry his lessons with her? Does that symbolic sole woman in the film hold the future hope for mankind?