When Samira Makhmalbaf made The Apple (1998) at age 17, about Tehran sisters held captive at home by their fiercely patriarchal dad, skeptics speculated that Samira's father, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, had directed the precocious documentary. The famous Irani filmmaker is credited with the story, and with the editing, so wasn't The Apple, in truth, a film by Mohsen Makhmalbaf?
It wasn't, and neither is Blackboards, talented Samira Makhmalbaf's second picture, a narrative feature, which premiered at Cannes in the year 2000, when the director was 20. Mohsen is credited as executive producer, co-screenwriter, and editor. But once again, Samira is the auteur, the person who was behind the camera during the grueling, dangerous shoot in the high mountains of Kurdistan, along the Irani-Iraqi border. That's where the once-warring countries (1980-87) clashed by night, and where Saddam Hussein tried to destroy the Kurd populace with ghastly chemical weapons. For the three months filming Blackboards, Samira was alone there. Without Makhmalbaf family. Without a phone conversation to Tehran.
"I was traveling around Iran searching for a story and location that would really move me," she explained at Cannes 2000, when Blackboards played in Official Competition. "During a stay in Kurdistan with my father, we found little topics, little stories, and I preferred this story: about the journey of teachers with blackboards on their backs as they traveled Kurdistan. My father gave me the outline of the story, and I drew up the screenplay as we went along."
The Kurdish-speaking characters in Makhmalbaf's movie-impoverished teachers and youthful smugglers- shuttle back and forth between Iran and Iraq, with threatening helicopters overhead. Is it intentional that, in certain scenes, it's difficult to identify the nationality of those plaguing the Kurds?
"I didn't want to be too specific about any country or region," Makhmalbaf agreed."It's a rather surrealistic film, with the bombings as a bad dream, a nightmare, I imagined in my head. So it is hard to tell who is responsible, Iraq or Iran. But the problem isn't just war between Iran and Iraq. It goes back to former kings and former politicians. Today we have inherited their legacy.
"The issues of smuggling, of people without homes, I could have made in other Iranian provinces. However, I couldn't make a film about Kurdistan without talking about chemical bombings, the human side of war. I was obliged to go every day with the cast two hours to the frontier. My crew would say, 'We don't want to go to the Iraqi border. We can shoot here.' But I wanted to be impregnated by the energy of a border city, Halabcheh, which had been bombed in chemical warfare."
Many of those in the cast are citizenry from Halabceh; one actor is professional, Behnaz Jafari, the sole female in Blackboards. Mahkmalbaf: "I liked the contrast between one woman and a whole group of men. Since women are so ignored in Iran, I wanted to give special value to this woman character, a young widow with a child. One day, I saw a woman going from one village to another, depressed because she had lost her husband, carrying water in a kettle. My actress was inspired by this woman, who was a bit deranged.
"Originally, an actor was cast as the primary teacher. One day he talked to me: could I fire him? The person who now plays the part [Said Mohamadi] came to me spontaneously. For the role of the father, I opted for a well-known Irani professional. As others were natural, he stood out. He was too exaggerated. I found myself with a dilemma. How to blend his acting with the others? He solved the problem himself: 'I'm going. Take someone else.' I chose instead this old man. His skin, his pain, showed all the right information.
"Using such non-actors was both difficult and easy. It was easy in that the people were not as complicated as urban actors. They knew nothing about the sixth art. Many had seen no films at all. Less than a year ago, they still had no electricity.
"It was difficult because they would stop working for prayers, for local feasts. I told them they couldn't, they wouldn't listen to me. In order to encourage them, I had to set an example. I had to go into icy waters, and I climbed mountains, but not out of machismo. They would do it if I, a woman, did it first."
A postscript: The New York Times on December 5, 2002, announced that Makhmalbaf, now 22, is directing "the first feature film to be made in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban." The untitled work is "a story of a women's dreams in a changing society."