The Youngest Female Director in the World
Interview with Samira Makhmalbaf on her film Blackboards
○ How do you feel about being accepted to the most important section of the cannes festival (competition section) as the youngest female director of the world, for your film “The blackboard” ; And what are you feelings about being invited as a lecturer for the Future Cinema Seminar as one of the 40 filmmakers, writers, and philosophers invited from all over the world?
As an Iranian woman and probably the representative of the new generation of Iranians who are especially active in different domains, including politics and culture. I am not surprised at all. I rather feel national pride and believe this the continual acknowledgement of the Iranian nation in international arenas.
○ Why was the film shot in Kurdistan? And where did the idea first come from?
My last movie was produced in Tehran. Tehran is a part of Iran. Kurdistan is also a part of Iran at this time. My next movie will take place in another part of Iran, including Baluchistan, to make this movie. My father accompanied me in my trip to Kurdistan. We walked through many arduous paths and everything my father saw on the way reminded him of a story that could easily have been made into a movie. Among the stories my father told me, this was the one I chose. The story of the wandering teachers of a school destroyed by bombs, who carry their blackboards on their back wandering around and looking for students, and not finding any.
○ After making “The Apple”, a film that mostly takes place in a house and an alley, how did you end up making a big budget production like this?
Each story requires a different makeup . “The Apple” did not need to be a big budget production, and “The Blackboard” could not have been made with just three or four actors. What’s more, after the appreciation “The Apple” received all over the world, a high amount of energy built up inside me. This internal energy was looking for a way to get out.
○ The name “Halabcheh” is mentioned in the movie. Where is Halabcheh, and how did the bombardment they talk about in the movie, take place?
Halabcheh is a city in Iraq, situated close to the Iranian border. The Iraqi government used chemical bombardment to repress the Iraqi Kurds.the movie “The Blackboard” was shot near Halabcheh, on the Iran-Iraq border. The landmines planted in that area during war have never been removed and one of our problems during production was to know where we can walk and where there are no landmines. We regularly received information from the local villagers on the safe lands to walk on.
○ Is this movie also the story of the different generations of Iranians?
Yes, We see three generations in this movie. One is the young generation which is fertile and productive, but the older generations have done little for them and they have to do dangerous things every day to make ends meet. They like to learn, but that is not one of their choices. The second generation is the middle one: the teachers. They try to teach and benefit the two other generation from their knowledge and experience, but do not succeed. The third generation is the one with no patience to hear what the second generation has to say. It is too late for them to change. They walk their own path. Bitter recollections hurt their common memory and they walk their own path. The older generation is more patriotic than the two younger ones. They have reached the end of their lives, and just like a flock of fish in the Pacific Ocean heading to their birthplace when they reach the end of their lives, these old men leave Iran and go to Iraq to die where they were born.
○ The old Iraqi men leave Iran and go to Iraq, to die where they were born. When did they come to Iran?
They took refuge in Iran during the eight-year-old Iran-Iraq war, to escape the chemical bombardments.
○ Where do the teenagers come from, and where do they go?
Every morning, they cross the Iranian border and illegally enter Iraq, and smuggle something back in to Iran on the same day. To earn in of to make it through the day, they play with their lives everyday.
○ To what extent is this story true?
This story is something between reality and fiction. Smuggling, being homeless, and people’s efforts to survive are all part of reality. Even in the case of the insane woman, I was inspired by the story of one such woman who had killed her husband. I took the actress to that woman, so she could be inspired to act like her. My brother Maysam has filmed behind the scenes of “The Blackboard”, and in his film he clearly shows how an insane countrywoman is both my inspiration for creating the character and the actress’s inspiration for playing the part.
○ What metaphors could there be in this movie?
I don’t like to bring my unconscious in to my consciousness on this subject. The film, as a hole, is a metaphor. I tried to keep my story’s feet on the ground, to make it real, but the metaphor starts where the earthly reality and the artistic fiction make love, yielding poetic concepts. I am not a poem interpreter; the poetic face of any artwork always amazes me. Even when that artwork is a table or a chair or a blackboard handmade by a carpenter. It is for the audience and the critics to discover the metaphors or interpret them. With all the thought and reason I have put, my unconscious still played a big role in the making of this movie. For instance, if you ask me why there is only one woman in this movie while there are so many men, I must say that I don’t know. Something inside me made me do that.
○ Who are the actors? Are they professionals, or are they ordinary people, like they were in your last movie?
Apart from the woman who is a talented young actress doing both movies and plays, and the young teacher who is one of the directors of the new generation of Iranian cinema, the rest are ordinary villagers from the area. I should note that at first, I took a professional actor with me to play the role of the old man who is the girl’s father. Yet, as much as I tried, his style of acting didn’t fit in with the ordinary people. On one side, I didn’t want to have an actor who doesn’t fit in with the rest of the cast, and on another side I couldn’t ask him to leave. I was scared to offend him, were I to ask him to leave. I was stuck between an artistic decision, and a human one. Finally, his humanity acted to solve my artistic problem. One day, the actor came to me himself and said: My dear girl, why are you being so diffident? I’ll leave, and you can choose someone else for the role. I am still touched by the nobility of that artist. I wish I had the ability to bring harmony and accord to the acting of him and the people, and to make his acting look in place with the others; unfortunately, I didn’t have that ability.
○ The movie is in Kurdish. Do you know Kurdish?
Fortunately, the people of that region are bilingual. They talked to us in Persian while they talked Kurdish among themselves. I told them what I wanted them to say in Persian, and they would say it in Kurdish. I used two methods to control their lines. The first method was by paying attention to the others’ reactions when someone talked. The locals sometimes suggested alternative phrases to use. And sometimes, my local assistant controlled the Kurdish sentences spoken. During the production, I got to know the Kurdish language to some extent. Now, I completely understand everything that is said in the movie. More than anyone else, the actor in the leading role who played the old men’s teacher helped me learn the language. He first joined us to help with the acquisitions, but gradually transformed to our leading actor.
○ What was your experience with the ordinary people?
It was both easy and difficult. It was easy, because villagers and people living up in those mountains are very honest and sincere. They weren’t complicated like urban people. Yet it was hard, because they weren’t even familiar with cinema.
○ Was the first screenplay sufficient, or did you make some parts of the film as you went along?
The screenplay my father gave me was an outline of a plot, without any detail or dialogue. At some points of the story, he had even proposed two or three alternatives for me to choose from. My father said: I myself don’t follow my own scenarios when I’m making the movie, so how could you follow scenarios written by me, without making some changes of your own. I think it better if you go to the stage with this general plot and complete it as you go along and see the realities. I can say that the story came from Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and I wrote the screenplay. Every night, after shooting, I wrote the net part of the screenplay. That is why you see both our names as “Writer” in the credits.
○ Did you have a word in the montage, or was that left entirely to Mohsen?
I was present during the whole montage phase. In the editing phase, a great deal of time was spent on arranging the scenes in the form I’d planned earlier. Next came the innovative phase of the montage. The scenes were moved and cut many times in this phase. Mohsen Makhmalbaf is very open-minded in the editing of my movies as well as others’. Apart from his own films, he has edited 10 films for other directors. He told me: “there are parts of your film where I don’t agree with the rhythm, but that isn’t important. What’s important is that you,as the director of the movie, approve of it. This is your movie.” My father does not agree with the dialogues I used in the movie, but again he says: “As long as you believe in them, it’s fine. Everyone must make his own film.”
○ How long did the preparation and the shooting take?
The shooting was done in two different stages and along with the preparations. The net count shows that we had 30 shooting sessions, but if you want the total shooting and preparations, it would amount to four months.
○ Wasn’t it difficult for you to work with a big group?
Any project has difficulties of its own. Our first problem in gathering 200 old men was that there weren’t 200 old men in one single village, and many of them would not act, because of their traditions or bigotry. Every morning, we sent eight cars to other villages to gather the group we needed. The next problem was feeding them. It is difficult to prepare warm food for a group of 150 to 200 people, in the top of the cold mountains. But because of the cold weather, we insisted on having warm food. The villagers sometimes called the day off because of a wedding, a mourning ceremony, or the weekend prayers; otherwise, the old men followed my instructions well. That was because I put myself in their shoes. For example, when we needed the old man in the river, I would first go stand in the cold water myself and direct the scene from there. By doing that, I would not forget the cold and the need to finish the scene as soon as possible, and they would know that I understand their problems. You could call it a difficult film to make, but for me, it was a challenge and I needed it. Because of the attention my last film “The Apple” received and the kindness the audience showed me, my expectations of my own self rose. Like anyone else, I need people to love me and I had to keep my audience. Yet, my father says that more than wishing for others to love you, you should love them. That is the way towards humanity.
○ What were the people’s reactions to “The Apple” all over the word? To what extent, were you present wherever the film was shown?
Both in the international festivals, and in the theaters where the movie was shown, the reactions were terrific. They all talked about how to movie does not make any judgments. Everybody asked about what finally happened to the two girls and was worried about them. Because of that movie, many festivals chose me to take part in their jury. My movie was presented in more than 100 festivals and I was present in a number of those festivals. The appreciation the audience showed towards my movie gave me the energy to make my next film. But I kept telling myself: Samira, don’t you forget that the prison term those two girls went through was the reason you could travel around the world freely. Don’t you forget that you represent a generation that has suffered. Such feelings sometimes made me regret taking those trips.
○ What happened to the kids in “The Apple”?
With the money the movie made, their two-story house was built, one for the parents and one for the two girls. But the father’s mentality wouldn’t let the children live freely. One day, I went to see the kids and noticed that their father had put back into place the doors we had removed. Once again, he had a key chain in his hand and we had to pass through more doors, which all locked again, to reach the children. The welfare authorities wouldn’t accept the children either. They said they only took care of retarded children, and that these two girls were smart kids, that could be hindered by the environment, that the retarded children could set them back. A few months later, their blind mother died as well. We finally convinced the father to let some other family raise the kids, and he accepted. The two girls have been going to school for two years now, and one of them is even on an honor roll. They were medically examined and after proven healthy, a good family who were touched by the movie accepted the task of raising them. We invested some money from the profit of the movie “The Apple” and their costs of living is paid monthly. A French critic used to tell me that some films are real, while some alter reality; The Apple is among the latter. If it weren’t for the Apple, the two girls would have still been locked up in that house. So one can have fate in the redeeming cinema.
○ As a young woman, how do you see the present Iranian society? What role do women play, and what share do female filmmakers presently have in the motion picture business?
Iranian woman are gradually becoming active to claim their social positions. Their presence had increased in the recent elections. They play a more active role in press, stage plays and cinema everyday. There are currently several female filmmakers in Iran and they are doing well.