Dir: Samira Makhmalbaf. Iran. 2000. 85 mins.
Prod cos: Makhmalbaf Film House, Fabricia Cinema in association with RAI in collaboration with T-Mark of Japan. Int'l Sales: Wild Bunch (Le Studio Canal Plus), tel: (33) 1 53 64 85 55. Exec prod: Mohamad Ahmadi. Prods: Mohsen Moahmalbaf, Marco Mueller. Scr: Mohsen and Samira Makhmalbaf. DoP: Ebrahim Ghafori. Ed: Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Music: Mohamed Reza Daryishi. Main cast: Said Mohamadi, Bahman Ghobardi, Behnaz Jafari, Rafat Moradi.
The 20-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf's follow-up to her enormously impressive debut film, The Apple, represents a vast leap forward in both ambition and technical achievement, though at the partial cost of the quirkiness and distinctly feminine perspective of the earlier work.
Overseas audiences might have appreciated a little more fleshing out of the cultural and political background to the story, and the film - though not without its comic moments - lacks the lightness and upbeat conclusion of The Apple. But extensive international festival exposure and overtures from speciality distributors look assured.
Set in the ravaged, brutally beautiful mountain landscape along the Iran-Iraqi frontier, it follows the fortunes of two itinerant freelance teachers who roam the countryside in quest of pupils with their blackboards strapped to their backs. One teams up with a group of Iraqis - refugees from the Iran-Iraq war - who are attempting to cross the mountains and regain their homeland. The other happens upon a band of small boys smuggling contraband across the border.
Both men meet with a dogged reluctance from the local Kurdish population to sign up for lessons. Many profess no interest at all in learning to read or write and an amusing running theme is the fact that the blackboards are pressed into service for virtually everything but the function for which they were originally intended: camouflage, a stretcher, a clothes horse, an improvised splint for a broken leg and a bivouac against the frequent bursts of gunfire and shelling.
Teacher number one becomes taken with the only woman in the party of returning Iraqis, and decides to marry her (his blackboard comes in handy in yet another guise, as the requisite dowry). But his wife - the film's only significant female character - proves mutely unresponsive to his clumsy declarations of love, and they split up as soon as they have reached their destination.
Teacher number two finds a single small boy who expresses a desire to learn to write his name, but their lessons are constantly interrupted by bursts of gunfire from the border troops and his moment of triumph is cruelly punctured. As in The Apple, the director has coaxed some winning performances, particularly from the very young and old members of her cast.
The film paints a bleak portrait of a dirt-poor, superstition-bound, chronically under-developed and fatalistic community. Even one of the teachers moans that his wife has left him and their children, forcing him to have their baby suckled by a variety of women, and claims that the child is now coming to resemble all its nursing mothers. When he's asked by an old peasant to read out a letter from his son, a political prisoner in Iraq, unable to decipher the contents, he transparently makes them up.
Makhmalbaf's strong visual eye is constantly in evidence, both in her eye for the bizarre, almost surreal image and her flair for composition and the technical credits are polished across the board, with spare but effective use of a harsh ethnic soundtrack.