March 21, 2008

Blackboards: Education and Civilisation

Blackboards is a stark film. It is an Iranian film, made about people on the border between Iran and Kurdistan during the war between Iran and Iraq. It portrays the life of itinerant teachers, roaming to find classrooms who will listen to what they have to say, to a basic smattering of learning- the alphabet and the two times table are the two pieces of information that our teachers attempt to convey. We follow two of these wanderers who separate off from the group and start attempting to retail their learning throughout the border areas. One takes the high path and the other the lower path. Reeboir goes up into the mountains and finds a group of young boys smuggling contraband between Iran and Iraq. Said takes the low road and ends up attached to a group of pilgrims attempting to get back to their homeland inside Iraq. Both form semi-emotional attachments: Reeboir to one boy who does sort of want to learn, Said gets married very briefly to a single mother in the party and then divorces from her when she demonstrates her lack of interesti in him.

Its a stark story though. The two characters encounter rejection after rejection after rejection. Said's relationship with his wife is particularly pathetic. She scarcely acknowledges his presence and doesn't even talk to him for most of the film. She ignores his efforts to teach her to read. But he also misjudges the situation, he is unable to see for instance that her ties to her son are more valuable to her than her ties to him, he fails to see that when she has lost her son, the last thing she wants is a lesson in Arabic grammar. Said's misunderstanding pervades the film. There is a sense in which this film is one of the most embarrassing I have ever sat through- you feel the embarrassment of the main characters. The truth is that they are trying to force education upon these people who don't really want it. Noone actually wants to learn to read and most of the time, Said and Reeboir are just hassling them to acquire a skill they see no need for.

And why should they need it? At no point does Said or Reeboir's skill come in useful. Ironically the one time someone does want Said to read something it is an old man whose son is in an Iraqi gaol, but the language of the letter is Arabic and Said can't read Arabic, only Kurdish. In a sense the whole film is summed up in the use of the blackboard. At no point is the blackboard actually useful as a teaching aide. Throughout the film, the blackboards that Said and Reeboir carry on their backs are used for all kinds of things- as shelters from airraids (as in the picture above) or rifle fire, cut up for splints so that an injured boy can walk, used to carry an old man who is ill or even used as a clothes line. But when they are used as blackboards- to convey knowledge- they are singularly inadequate. They fail to interest those who look at them- and on the one occasion where one of the boys does use the blackboard as a teaching aide, a bombing raid means that he has to flee. The last scene of the movie captures the utility of writing perfectly in this environment. Said wrote at the beggining of his relationship on the board 'I love you', his ex-wife turns away from him, carrying away her dowry, a blackboard with 'I love you' written on it. The irony is evident- words can say anything you want, but that is all Said has, the words and not the passion.

Writing is useless in this film because this film portrays a society right at the cusp of social development, right at the moment before society. We see no evidence here of law- and little evidence of property. There is nothing here- except warring armies whose shells, chemical weapons and rifles disrupt the lives of a nomad population. Writing is an artificial thing- writing 'I love you' to a girl only matters when she can read it and agrees with you on its meaning and significance. If she doesn't read or doesn't agree that those words are significant, you might as well have written 'I think you are a pink elephant' for all that it is going to effect the world. Similarly with writing when you are being bombed. The useful knowledge here is practical knowledge- medicine, remembered stories about rabbits- but training and academic degrees even in practical subjects are useless- there isn't the time to get them and to devote to them.

When we talk about civilisation, we often imply that it is natural. But it isn't. The best historians of the subject have discussed the way that civilisation is an artificial imposition- it is a creation whereby we warp the world. Much of what we do on earth to sustain it is useless- and its use is not its essence. The teachers come from a civilised world where one might want to read a book or a newspaper, to know what is going on. Education quite simply does not make sense to the people on the Iranian-Iraqi border, why should it? That implies something about civilisation in general- perhaps becoming civilised is not a rational choice- but rather a mutation produced by a particular constellation of things as a response to a particular situation. Blackboards leaves you in no doubt that there are few attractions to lure the people of Kurdistan to take up the blackboard and use it to teach: afterall when the planes are heading to bomb you from above, a blackboard is much better camoflage than sums are.