Posted by Susan Doll on March 27, 2017
To view The House Is Black click here.
Documentary often focuses our attention on something we might not otherwise notice—a forgotten event, an overlooked historical figure, an ignored social problem, an animal species hidden in plain sight. The House Is Black (1963), currently streaming on FilmStruck, does more than focus our attention; it dares us to look at a subject that will make us uneasy, uncomfortable or just plain upset. Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad conceived and directed The House Is Black, a short documentary that reveals the daily lives of the inhabitants of a leper colony near Tabriz. It is likely the first Iranian documentary ever directed by a woman.
Don’t expect an informative program on leprosy, or a tragic expose of the victims of this disease, who are further persecuted by social stigma. Instead, Farrokhzad offers a unique combination of documentary realism and poetic sensibilities. The film pulls no punches in showing the physical deformities of both adults and children, but it does not exploit them either. Scenes of the lepers attending school, playing games or brushing their hair normalize the residents of the colony. Though the imagery is shot with documentary realism, the audio is unique and experimental. Two voice-over commentaries alternate in the background. A male voice impassively offers facts about leprosy, while Farrokhzad’s own voice recites her poetry combined with bits from the Koran and the Bible. The combination of fact and poetry, the objective and the self-conscious, is neither dispassionate nor maudlin. It is simply humanist. A shot near the end represents the overall tone of the film: A crowd of lepers approaches the camera, as though they are coming toward us, the viewers. Suddenly, they are cut off from us—and, from the outside world—when a gate closes in front of them. The gate includes a sign that bears the words “leper colony,” or more precisely “leper house,” which ties it more directly to the film’s title. Without scolding the viewers or sentimentalizing the subjects, the shot suggests the brutality of shutting away these lepers, coldly symbolizing the idea of out of sight and out of mind.
Film scholars have referred to The House Is Black as the forerunner of the Iranian New Wave and Farrokhzad as its founder. For some Iranians, she remains a figure wrapped in scandal and controversy, but others still affectionately call her by her first name. I am most interested in Forugh as an artist and a woman. I admire her passion and compassion as well as her decision to defy the norms of her society, which were evident in her actions. For example, lepers were taboo at that time, and Farrokhzad was warned by officials to avoid physical contact with any of them. Evidently, she was so profoundly changed by her experiences with the film that she adopted a boy from the colony. She brought him back to Tehran to live with her at her mother’s house.
Forugh (or Forough) led an unorthodox life, especially for an Iranian woman. She was the only woman prominent on the Iranian literary scene during the 1950s and 1960s, publishing over 125 poems in five collections. Additional poems were published in magazines and journals; dozens of poems were never published at all. Under the rule of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, the country went through a westernization, but the culture was still repressive for women. Forugh’s life as an artist and her decision to infuse her poems with personal feelings and intimate experiences placed her at odds with her society. Her intellectual pursuits were the result of her father’s decision to encourage artistic expression and inclinations in his children. He made sure his daughters as well as his sons received a formal education.
She began writing poetry as a teenager, working hard to master the ghazal, a traditional style of Persian verse with a rigid form and structure. Poetry is an art form that goes back over 1000 years in this culture and is of great importance to the people. In 1951, at age 16, Forugh married a much older man in what may have been an arrangement engineered by her parents. The paths of the poet and of the wife were not parallel for Forugh; instead, they pulled her in different directions. In 1954, the couple divorced, and she lost custody of her only biological son to her husband’s family.
While in her early 20s, Forugh published three collections of poetry, which expressed youthful themes of love and sexual passion but also exposed her frustration at the limitations of women in her society. The literary establishment was skeptical and critical not only because she was a woman but also because she had become a modernist. She wrote in a female voice and from a personal perspective—techniques not used in traditional Persian poetry.
A trip to Europe proved liberating, influencing her as an artist and an intellectual. Upon her return, she found work at Ferdowsi, a weekly magazine that promoted modernism in Iran. As she matured, her poetry revealed a deeper connection to her art as she explored her life beyond the level of personal relationships. Instead of rebelling against the restrictions of her society, she struggled to understand it and what it meant to be alienated from it.
The biggest catalyst for change in her life was her personal and professional relationship with documentary filmmaker Ebrahim Golestan, who had hired her to work at his Golestan Film Studio. Their relationship was passionate and volatile but also significant for introducing Forugh to filmmaking. Prior to The House Is Black, she was involved in other cinematic projects, working as an editor or an actress. But, any further cinematic interests or artistic contributions after her ground-breaking documentary were cut short when she was killed in a traffic accident in 1967 at age 32. To avoid a collision with a school bus, she swerved her jeep, which hit a stone wall.
How surprising that a woman would be considered the “founding father” of Iranian cinema in a country where women are often repressed. How fortunate that she inspired generations of other fearless female filmmakers, including Rakhshan Bani Etemad, Tahmineh Milani, and Samira Makhmalbaf, who noted, “She has such power. In most cultures, women try to write like men, but she’s completely a woman. . . .”
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