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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 same.

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.


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