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BLACKBOARDS

KURDS AND WAYS

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Like virtually all works of Iranian cinema that we see in the West, Samira Makhmalbaf's Blackboards is a story of isolation, suffering and despair. There is no "but" to follow that assertion. About 15 minutes from the end, when the itinerant tutor Said finally teaches a boy to write his own name, the achievement permits Makhmalbaf the opportunity to present another of her movie's brutal ironies.

Blackboards is bleak coming from any artist, but possibly even bleaker coming from the 19-year-old daughter of Iran's premier filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Kandahar), who co-wrote Blackboards. It's just Samira's second feature film, and while it certainly promises better things, this seminal work about forbidden subjects is understandably guerrilla -- patchy, episodic and occasionally disjointed, though handsomely filmed in the rocky brown hills that separate Iran from Iraq.

The drama's central figure is a Kurd who wanders from place to place among his people with a blackboard strapped to his back. His plaintive mantra -- "Who wants to learn to read and write?" -- draws no takers. "Good for you," says an old woman flatly when Said announces that he's a teacher. One arrogant boy, part of a line of "mules" hauling heavy loads on their shoulders, calls the proffer "useless."

Soon Said encounters a group of nomads and begs them for work or food. They have neither, even for themselves, but they let him tag along. One old man in the group hasn't been able to urinate in three days, and if he's going to die, he wants his taciturn daughter and sullen toddler grandson to have a provider. So with the blackboard as a dowry, Said and Halaleh are married, though the bride barely even consummates the relationship with tolerance, let alone anything else.

Makhmalbaf's story in Blackboards allows her to show us slices of hard-knocks life among her country's diasporic Kurds, who want only to return to the safety of their "homeland" inside Iraq. It also provides a format for her ubiquitous metaphors, of which the blackboard is the most prominent: It's a tool with no use in a culture of starving, fearful people, and though it looks like a pair of wings on Said's peripatetic back, nobody welcomes his invitation to fly away with pointless knowledge in such a ne plus practical world. Like Gulliver or Sinbad, his journey confronts him with hazards, and when a boy breaks his leg, several pieces of a teacher's atrophied blackboard become the perfect splint.

Toward the end of Blackboards, the wanderers come upon some soldiers who open fire, and Halaleh's maternal instinct goes into overdrive: She hides her family beneath her blackboard dowry and begins to construct a pathetic wall of stones to guard against "chemical weapons." That phrase feels oddly clinical in the subtitles, but moments later, as people cower and crawl away from the gunfire, it becomes palpable and real -- like yesterday's news. In Kurdish, with subtitles. * * 1/2

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