How Samira made the "Blackboard"
By David Straton
November 20-26, 2000
This last-minute addition to the Venice film fest is an admiring portrait
of youthful director Samira Makhmalbaf, made by her younger brother, Maysam,
and mostly filmed during the shooting of her second feature whose English
title in Cannes this year was "Blackboards," but here is consistently
referred to as "The Blackboard." Of interest to the growing number
of fans of Iranian cinema, and useful for TV networks planning to screen
"Blackboards," the film is quite revelatory. It should get plenty
exposure at fests and on TV in the coming year.
Samira herself narrates, in excellent English, explaining that she was
born into a filmmaking family (her father, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, is one of
Iran's leading directors) and that she had "acted" in her first
film when she was only a month old. At the age of 8, she played a key role
in her father's acclaimed "The Cyclist."
At the age of 17, she directed her first feature, "The Apple,"
which screened in 1998 in Cannes' Un Certain Regard section. She is seen
directing the old man and his two imprisoned daughters, who re-enacted
their strange lives for the film and, later, with the now liberated and
more articulate girls. Most of "How Samira Made 'The Blackboard,'
" as its title suggests, covers the making of "Blackboards,"
which was shot in rocky, mountainous terrain among Kurdish communities
on the border between Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria and dealt with unemployed
schoolteachers who carry their blackboards with them, on their backs, like
beasts of burden.
Still only 19 during the rugged shoot, Samira is seen as a hard taskmaster,
with a precise vision of what she wants to achieve. All the filming was
done with a handheld camera, sans Steadicam, and a handful of professional
actors worked alongside non-pros from the region. Location looks to be
an extremely dangerous one, not least because of the treacherous terrain.
In one revealing sequence, an actor hired to play an old man refuses
to tone down his over-the-top performance, telling the young director she
should "never tell an actor what to do." After cajoling and repeatedly
instructing this recalcitrant thesp, to no effect, the director replaces
him with a non-pro, who immediately gives the performance she requires.
She's also seen instructing some of her non-actors, standing behind
them and whispering to them, as she extracts believable performances from
them. She even plunges into an icy river to persuade her actors to do the
The documentary concludes with the closing night ceremony in Cannes,
where Samira is awarded the Prix du Jury of the fest. In an emotional speech,
she accepts on behalf of "the new, young generation who struggle for
democracy and a better life in Iran."
Pic was shot on video, and the version screened has English dialogue.
The brief credit titles are also in English.
A Makhmalbaf Film House production. Directed by Maysam Makhmalbaf.
Camera (color)/editor, Maysam Makhmalbaf; sound, Mojaba Mirtahmab. Reviewed
at Venice Film Festival (New Territories), Sept. 7, 2000. (Also in Pusan
Film Festival.) Running time: 73 MIN.