This is a film by a very young, Iranian filmmaker, Samira Makhmalbaf, who was nineteen years old at the time that she filmed it. She comes from an Iranian family steeped in the filmmaking tradition, as her father, Mosen Makhmalbaf, was a director. Her mother used to act in her husband's films, as did Samira, as a child. In fact, her father was the producer, as well as the co-screenwriter and editor, for this film.
This film, which received the 2000 Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize, takes place in the Kurdistan region of Iran and was filmed in Kurdish. None of the performers are professional actors, except for Behnaz Jafari, who is a noted Iranian stage and film actress and plays the only female role in the film. Local village people were used for the other roles, except for the role of one of the teachers, which was played by a Kurdish filmmaker. The film was shot on location in the rugged mountainous terrain in the Kurdistan region of Iran, near the Iranian/Iraqi border.
The film tells the story of the poor people of Kurdistan, which is a region always struggling with problems caused by war. The film first centers on a band of itinerant Iranian school teachers who struggle to bring a modicum of education to the children of this war torn region. They travel with large blackboards on their backs and traipse up and down the steep mountain side, as poor as those whom they seek to teach. Their blackboards serve many functions, as the viewer will soon discover. Early on in the film, two teachers splinter off from the main group. The film proceeds to follow these two teachers on their respective journeys, where they will discover that education cannot find its niche in a land where the young need to work to survive, and adults simply want to return to their homeland to die.
One of the teachers encounters a group of boys who are mules for some contraband that they are paid to carry over the border on their backs. The other teacher encounters a group of Kurds who are seeking to return to their war torn homeland, Halabcheh, which is just over the Iraqi border. It is the actual site where Kurds had been subjected to the chemical warfare of the Iraqi regime. During the war between Iraq and Iran in the nineteen eighties, many Iraqi Kurds took refuge in Iran to escape chemical warfare. Both the children and the wandering Kurds, together with the teachers, face dangers and hardships along their way that most of those who view this film can only imagine.
This film is a visual eye-opener, a stark and shocking depiction of insular lives lived quite primitively. The only intrusion of the outside, modern world into the lives of these people is in the guise of sophisticated weaponry. This is an ambitious film that suffers from some lack of cohesion. It is, however, thematically complex, and its young director holds much promise. This is a film that those with an interest in other cultures will enjoy. If not, deduct one star from my rating.