The House Is Black


Iran / 1962 / Farsi

Directed by Forough Farrokhzad

Still from 'The House Is Black'A male narrator begins speaking over a darkened screen, blank but not empty; there is an undeniable weight and depth to it, as the beseeching voice tells us of suffering that exists in the world that is too urgent to blot out, too heartbreaking to perceive without being moved. The words are a warning, the darkness a prelude to submersion into rooms and sights that we cannot leave behind to the oblivion of the seen and then discarded. The House Is Black was the only film directed by Forough Farrokhzad, considered by many to be among Iran’s greatest poets of the 20th Century, who died at a young age. Ostensibly a documentary about the people living in a leper colony near Tabriz, in the North of Iran near the border with Azerbaijan, the informational content of the film is interspersed with lines of Farrokhzad’s poetry, on top of lyrical montage and imagery that are befitting of both textual elements.

The opening shot moves slowly in behind a woman wearing a niqab who is studying her reflection in a mirror, and whose face appears as a mismatched puzzle, as though the leprosy has caused its features to drift in all directions away from equilibrium. In spite of being within a body increasingly withered and fossilized by the horrible disease, she sees herself as clearly as we see her, and there is recognition in viewing her one remaining eye. We all exist equally in that mirror, known back to front by some pervasive plan. While Farrokhzad’s intent is to confront us with pain and sorrow, it becomes apparent that she plans to approach her subject with a complexity and an intensity modeled after those which we feel as human beings when confronted with the misery of others. And she does so without reducing the people whom she shows to symbols, fables, or shadows. This is a film that does not so much challenge our ideas of what is beautiful and what is frightening, but reconfigures them altogether as its starting point.

While depicting the deplorable conditions in which the people live in the flyblown leper colony, the film also resonates at a hopeful pitch, showing that they get education, live spiritual lives, and are given regular medical treatment. It shows sadness and listlessness, but also gaiety and community, as bright-eyed children play, women sew, and people dance while beating large Azeri drums. Things are stagy in a way seen in most early documentaries, as well as ones made later in places where cinéma vérité did not immediately penetrate, with scenes sculpted from everyday life to achieve a discernible emotional effect, and with people speaking in scripted exchanges. The filmmaker never gets bogged down in pulling back the curtain on grotesqueness, as the matter-of-fact sensitivity of her presentation tears down our innate fear of disorder (which is an outgrowth of a fear of death), as well as our revulsion at scenes of poverty. Both are useless and never seem to enter into the picture. Beauty is recognition, after all, and is present in anything that touches us deeply and remains embedded in our minds, for better or for worse. In this place, and through Farrokhzad’s lens, all we see is beauty, existing at a different orientation than in most of the art we see. Some of the people seem relatively healthy, while others are masked in deep wrinkles, and still more, in very advanced stages of the disease, have faces that are obliterated or exaggerated like a papier mache mask. Some are blind while others cannot walk. In a meeting they take turns reciting prayers, thanking god for their body parts even as they gnarl into uselessness, and for the natural world even as it fades from sight.

Who is this in hell praising you, O Lord?

Still from 'The House Is Black'So often when a documentary aims at depicting suffering, the tone is largely informed by a desire to project it outward, making it accessible and palpable, and to appeal to the audience’s humanity while deemphasizing the humanness in its own approach. Seeing films like that can be an alienating experience. A certain degree of self-construction is necessary to their presentation, to make them able to deny the shades of emotional response opposite such imagery, the strange wandering of the eyes, and the equally strange acclimatization to the horrible and its more mundane qualities. While Farrokhzad does not shy away from these digressions within the process of connecting, she is careful to show people as they attempt to function, bring themselves as close to level with normalcy as they can, and meagerly beautify, or at least dignify, their blighted incarnations. In doing so she does not actively drum up pity (although that may well have been the expressed purpose of the film) but to awaken us to the experience of what we are seeing. The humanizing of the people she depicts is just as important as the enlightenment of the audience.

A man circumambulates a mosque, counting the windows, while on the soundtrack a woman names the days of the week. These people are already among the poorest in the country, and on top of that they are missing hands, noses, and eyes. But the film will not go on to address any bigger social problems, beyond acknowledging that leprosy is brought about by living in poor conditions. The House Is Black was made, on commission from the Society for Helping Lepers, by the studio of Ebrahim Golestan, a director for whom Farrokhzad had worked as a film editor. Continuing its function as a public service announcement, the male narrator enumerates the effects of leprosy, underscoring its curability. It “clears the way for other diseases” – just like poverty. The parallel poetic vein does not show the same sentiment as the prose, or at least, do not show the same way of interpreting the world – it is separate but closely related, twisting around the other like vines. The verse is the world-weary hope of the pious. It could have come from the mouths of the sufferers themselves, but was more likely inspired by them. While the prose enumerates the physical realities of the leper colony, Farrokhzad’s intonations describe suffering in a protean way, their lines arising from the frenzy and the illusion of the world, things not measurable by rational thinking. And the images conform both to the contemplative poetry and the dispassionate prose.

The male and the female voices together reflect dual impulses within a humanist approach: concrete rationalism and receptive empathy. The former shows the suffering, the latter gives voice to it. The lines seem to be describing escape, a translunar preoccupation with freedom from bodily shackles, from the knowing eyes of god that have bludgeoned the body with imperfections. But it is occupied in building a notion of what this desire for freedom is, being held at the forefront of the consciousness of the trapped, and correlating with the rest of humanity. It isn’t concerned with escapism directly, but how a person uses escapes, such as spirituality or celebration, to divine a sort of second existence, one that is off the ground, out-of-body. While things we see in the film are forced, shunted into situations to create a greater emotional impact, this does not diminish the overall feeling that the film creates. Like a poem it causes us to feel that there is no certainty besides the senses, as much as we are compelled to interpret, calculate, or build. In our world, there is nothing but counting windows and naming the days. The film builds from lucid impressions, communicating mostly through its imagery. Compositions and situations are stanzaic, mirroring and playing off of one another. A child rides in the back of a cart at the same languorous pace as lilies floating on the currents of a pond. As a man, seated in the dirt, tosses a pebble in the air, a billow of white birds explodes across the sky. Images of a woman’s arthritic hands, being treated with the flattening weight of bricks, are intercut with the upward-held ones of prayer. This echoes the threadbare hope expressed in their medical treatment, as they submit to god and medicine, all upturned hands and feet.

When I was silent my life was rotting from my silent screams all day long. Remember that my life is wind.

Still from 'The House Is Black'All along there is a feeling of being somehow beyond the corporeal, outside the world. It is as though we are seeing a newsreel of the afterlife. In a social sense these are the dead, exiled for their polluting deformity, consigned to a veritable Asphodel Meadows outside of town. Physically they linger in varying states of proximity to the grave. There is an acceptance of death, as though it is an old friend who has arrived some time ago, to be mercifully followed by the relief of paradise. But emotions remain intact; there is a large enough feeling of community to keep them preserved. The popular notion that Farrokhzad was utilizing the lepers to create political commentary, making their situation into a symbol for life under the Shah, for the atrophy of the spirit under repression, is perhaps too narrow an interpretation, and does little to accommodate her broad humanism. She does not turn to artistic dissociation, nor does she opt for an affected sense of relatability. But she is certainly working to distill the impact of the images, seeking out their basic connection to the human experience – which she infers by exploring her own concepts of pain and transcendence – while at the same time presenting them with all of their rough, confronting integrity. In the end we are struck twice by their power: first through a concrete impression and secondly by the aura of Farrokhzad’s words as they seep into and inform our experience of those pictures.

In the midst of cultural strangeness, one may feel a brief, possibly imagined connection with a person whose plight digs into the depths of one’s humanity, the differences erased as though they were never there – forgotten, patina that they are. Then person goes back to their distinctive cultural behavior and become strange again, just as quickly. Farrokhzad, in spite of her obtrusive presence and the exuberant camerawork of cinematographer Soleyman Minasian, manages to communicate this sensation in each passing face. The looks are not imploring but seeking, and wanting to be sought by mutual eyes. Along with this interpersonal directness, the film’s most touching element is the narration, which seems, in equal measure, to disclose the feelings of the poet and to reveal elements of the reality of the place, to bare itself as much as it brings to light about its subject. Her words are mellifluent as birdsong, spare as a windswept heath, and are hauntingly beautiful in a way that prayer has the ability to be to the outside observer. Indeed, much of the verse is written so as to address god, not as an appeal for relief from the torments of life, but as a trembling recognition of life’s fragility and imperfect essence.

There is a crude acceleration to the editing that gives the film an undeniable jaggedness but we have so quickly ceased to be startled by anything she chooses to show us.  This rapidity, rather than being an attempt to jar the viewer with reckless swerves or uncomfortable close-ups, instead resembles the connective propulsion of the filmmaker’s thoughts. This is how she jars us away detachment, by ruining us with intimacy. What appears at first as violence present in the montage turns out to be an eiditic reorganization of the filmmaker’s experience, something that extends much further than simply the visceral horror at seeing the conditions in which the people live, and becoming an enormous thunder-clap telling of powerlessness, of degeneration and isolation, of innumerable years spent in being concealed. Combining unflinching naturalism with elegant lines of verse, The House Is Black achieves a rare and stunning synthesis of the two, one whose fragile grace and fearless, humanist resonance endure as a moving and absorbing representation of how the embracing of the eternal can persist throughout this earthly trial.

Still from 'The House Is Black'


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