INTERVIEW: Samira Makhmalbaf Paints It "Blackboards"

by Anthony Kaufman

(indieWIRE: 12.09.02) -- At only 18, Samira Makhmalbaf (daughter of famed Iranian master Mohsen) directed one of the most auspicious film debuts of the '90s, "The Apple," a trenchant account of two young girls sheltered by their parents to debilitating extremes. Acted by the family whose story the film is based on, the young Makhmalbaf created a resonant neorealist study of the dangers of fundamentalist beliefs, the oppression of women, the bonds of family, and the blurry lines between documentary and fiction.

In her second film, "Blackboards," a Special Jury Prize winner at Cannes 2000 (which belatedly lands in New York today, with dates to follow in Boston, Berkeley, Seattle and L.A.), Makhmalbaf continues her poetic exploration of deprivation and neglect in the Middle Eastern world. In the film's striking opening images, we see how "Blackboards" gets its title: a group of teachers carry large chalkboards strapped to their backs, as if burdened with the weight of education itself, searching fruitlessly for Kurdish students in the dusty nether regions between Iran and Iraq.

"If you're a teacher, what can you do except carry your blackboard and look for students? They are like street vendors, shouting, 'Come, try to learn something!' In such a dire situation, everyone is poor, so nobody can learn anything."

Since making "Blackboards," Makhmalbaf directed one of the more subtle and celebrated segments from the French omnibus film "11-09-02," about a teacher trying to explain September 11 to young Afghani refugees. She is currently in Afghanistan working on her next feature, and along with her father and "Kandahar" actress Nelofer Pazira, helping to launch Afghan Film, a film production and exhibition entity that will put on the first film festival in Afghanistan. During Cannes 2000, indieWIRE contributor Anthony Kaufman spoke with Makhmalbaf about working with nonprofessional actors, the devastating affects of war, and the borders between imagination and reality, and nation states.

indieWIRE: You used mostly nonprofessional actors. How did you recruit and work with your cast?

Samira Makhmalbaf: There is only one professional actress in the film. I had taken one of Iran's most experienced professional actors, but after a little time, I found that he was quite different from the others, quite exaggerated. So he left. All of the others, except one or two, are local people, and they speak Kurdish, but they understand Persian, so I could express myself in Persian, and I could check it with my local assistant. After a little time, I got used to it, because it's very similar to the Persian language. It was hard and easy at the same time. It was hard because they didn't know what was cinema. They wanted to take a holiday during production for some religious practices and I said, no, it's not possible. But it was easy also, because it wasn't complicated. I chose all these characters because of the geography of their faces one by one; if you love your characters, they can feel it. And when you feel it, it's easier to direct them. It was a challenge, but it was not impossible.

iW: How did you write the dialogue?

Makhmalbaf: I wrote it and then I went to the characters with it. But I didn't dictate them to use all these words. Sometimes, it would be changed.

iW: Where did you find the little boys; were they actual mules smuggling goods between the countries?

Makhmalbaf: Yes, I chose them all from one village. It was their real lives. Smuggling was real to them, being a fugitive, poverty, ignorance, that's the reality of their lives. But the way I shot it, the way I expressed it, is between reality and imagination. It has a lot of metaphors, but at the same time, I'm talking about reality.

iW: Can you talk about the relationship between metaphor and reality in the film?

Makhmalbaf: The first image of the film starts with a very surreal image, but as you go into the film, you can feel the reality of being a fugitive. And I love this image very much and I think it can carry different meanings. It can express social, philosophic, and poetical meaning -- so many metaphors, and yet also, you can go into their reality.

The idea for the film came out of my father's mind when I was looking for a subject to do for my next film. He gave me three or four pages and then it was time for me to imagine it. But I couldn't simply imagine it. How can I sit here in Cannes and think of people living in Kurdistan? So I had to go in it and be involved in it. So I cast the actors and found my locations, and at the same time, I let the reality of the situation come in. I don't want to kill the subject and put it in front of the camera and just shoot it as a dead subject. I let the reality come into imagination. I believe that metaphors are born from the imagination of the artist and the reality of life making love to each other.

An example: Imagine more than a hundred old men want to go back to their country. This is imagination and reality. It's reality because there are some older generations that want to go back to their country to die. This is real. But just being old men is imagination. Or just being one woman is imagination. Or carrying these white boards is a combination of reality and imagination. Because 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? They are like street vendors, shouting, "Come, try to learn something!" In such a dire situation, everyone is poor, so nobody can learn anything. It is imagination, but it could exist.

"As the director of this film, I didn't make any limitations for the characters, any borders for them. For the young generation, there is no border, because they just want to live."

iW: The teachers, of course, can't find any children who are interested in learning. Why is this the case?

Makhmalbaf: When I make a movie, I don't try to make a statement; I think of a question and I go to find why it is so. In this situation, it is the bad consequences of war. This new generation is suffering from it, the old generation is still suffering from it, and the middle generation is trying to teach the past and future generations, but it's impossible, so they're also suffering the consequences of war. Why? Because there's no time to learn. The children have to smuggle every day from one country to another country to stay alive. They just want to be alive. To them, they feel education is useless. For the old people, the time for them to learn is over. They want to go back to their own country and die in their own country. So education also seems useless.

iW: The film deals a lot with borders. Most obviously, the border between Iran and Iraq, but also, the Kurds are a people without specific borders. What is your attitude towards borders?

Makhmalbaf: I think the best way to express myself about this is in the film. These people's situation is so hard. They're refugees, but they're also free. As the director of this film, I didn't make any limitations for the characters, any borders for them. For the young generation, there is no border, because they just want to live. It seems to me that they are like a big school of fish; they live in a big ocean, they're free, but when it's time to die, they suddenly want to go back to the place where they were born. I don't believe in borders. They seem funny, so arbitrary. However it's painful, because you feel this nationalism.

iW: How long did you spend shooting the film?

Makhmalbaf: For three months. One month of research, two months of shooting and around one month of editing. For editing, my father first did it. But he had to go by my decoupage [editing]. But then there was the creative editing, so of course, he made some changes. Then we had different ideas. If we didn't agree, we went with my idea. For example, he didn't like some of the dialogue or the sequences, but I believed in them. They came from my heart. If I didn't put it in, it would lack something.

iW: What exactly is your working relationship with your father?

Makhmalbaf: As a producer, of course, he helps give me the money so I can make the film. Then, he gives me many ideas, and I choose from them. Then I make the movie on my own. As it is in the cinema, it's a combination. It's art with different energies coming into it.