Posted by Susan Doll on October 21, 2013
Next semester I am teaching a section on documentary film, and I am considering showing The House Is Black, which airs tomorrow night at 12:15am (EST) on TCM as supportive programming for The Story of Film: An Odyssey. This 22-minute film from 1963 stretches the boundaries of what many people think of as documentary, which is one of the reasons why I am considering it for my class. Conceived and directed by an Iranian woman named Forough Farrokhzad, the film is a portrait of an isolated leper colony near Tabriz in northern Iran.
The House Is Black chronicles the daily lives of the lepers for whom ordinary activities—walking, eating, speaking—are a struggle. A leper colony is a place few viewers have seen, let alone experienced. Though there are still colonies around the world, they seem like remnants from the distant past, or their notoriety is exploited in novels or movies set in exotic lands, such as Papillon or Moloka’i. In The House Is Black, Farrokhzad asks us to look beyond the deformity and deterioration of the colony’s residents to see them as human beings. The images are neither dispassionate nor sentimental; the film captures the reality of their situation in a verite-like style.
A unique voice-over narration consisting of two alternating voices provokes thought and elicits sympathy. A male voice dispassionately offers facts about leprosy, while Farrokhzad’s own voice recites a poetic commentary that is a mix of quotes from the Bible, the Koran, and her own poetry. The strength of the film lies in the way it combines the external reality of the leper colony (the images) with an internal response to their plight (the narration). Like all great documentaries, The House Is Black seems simple and straightforward on the surface, yet its structure and execution make it memorable and moving.
The experience of making the film proved life-changing for Farrokhzad in more ways than one. Ever the rebel, she defied the taboos and laws of the era concerning lepers—including the ban on physical contact with them—to adopt a young boy from the colony. He appears as one of the students in the classroom scene near the end of the film. When the film was completed, she took him home with her to Tehran.
During the 1950s and 1960s, poet Forough Farrokhzad was a prominent voice in the Iranian literary scene. Poetry is an art form quite meaningful in the Persian culture, and its traditions go back over 1000 years. In her lifetime, Farrokhzad published five collections of poetry, and her work was regularly featured in magazines and journals. During this time, Mohammed Reza Phalavi, the Shah of Iran, was leading his country toward westernization and modernization, and Forough pushed the limits of what was tolerated for urban women at the time. She dressed in skirts and sleeveless shirts and wore makeup.
Farrokhzad’s early poetry revealed a youthful perspective on love and sexual passion as well as a frustration at the limitations placed on women in her culture. She was the first woman in Persian literature to write about her sexual desire. Her poems were met with disapproval from the male-dominated literary establishment, who expressed skepticism about her talents and disdain for her modernist style. Influenced by modern 20th-century poets such as Nima Yushij and Ahmad Shamlu, she wrote in a female voice and from a personal point of view. These modernist strategies were atypical of Persian poetry.
The poet became interested in cinema when she met documentary filmmaker Ebrahim Golestan in the late 1950s. The filmmaker had hired her to work at his Golestan Film Studio and also encouraged her to seek further independence and to pursue her artistic ambitions. Though her artistic canvas broadened into cinema, she continued to pen poetry. A new philosophical tone crept into her writing as she explored personal identity beyond the level of emotional relationships. Instead of rebelling against her culture, as she had done in earlier work, she struggled to understand her connection to it and what it meant to be alienated from it. This work was published in a volume titled Born Again (aka Another Birth). The House Is Black represents an extension of her poetry in its expressive narration and in the theme of alienation from one’s country and culture.
Aside from The House Is Black, Farrokhzad assisted Golestan with his films at his studio. She edited A Fire, a documentary about a major oil-well fire near Ahvaz that lasted for two months. She traveled to Khuzestan and contributed to a variety of films shot there, including as an actress, a producer, and an editor. She also directed a commercial for the classified ads section of a prominent newspaper. Sadly, whatever cinematic ambitions she may have had were cut short when she was killed in a traffic accident in 1967. She had swerved her jeep to avoid a collision with a school bus and hit a stone wall. She died shortly thereafter.
In her short life, Farrokhzad made an impact in poetry by establishing a feminine perspective in Persian poetry. Her work gave expression to the hidden feelings of Iranian women confined to lives of repression and tradition. She also served as a pivotal figure in the establishment of modern Iranian film, particularly the Iranian New Wave. The House Is Black and Forough Farrokhzad represent a link between poetry and cinema. According to film historian Hamid Dahashi in Iranian Cinema Past, Present and Future, Iranian filmmaking was influenced by the rebelliousness implicit in revisionist and modernist poetry. The filmmakers of the Iranian New Wave, such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami, acknowledge Forough as an influence not only because of her groundbreaking poetry and the glimpse of her talent in The House Is Black but also for her humanity.
Though I don’t agree with some of the viewpoints in The Story of Film: An Odyssey, especially regarding classic Hollywood film, this documentary series is important because it draws attention to international filmmakers like Farrokhzad. Outside of international film festivals and a handful of cinematheques and film programs, there are no opportunities to view The House Is Black.
What is the value of seeing films like The House Is Black? Without exposure to diverse voices, narratives, and styles from around the world, commercial Hollywood filmmakers have become repetitive, conventional, and dull while pandering to the teenage demographic the industry finds so important. Consequently, viewers’ tastes and tolerance for originality, uniqueness, and alternative viewpoints has become limited. In teaching over the years, I have seen the tastes of students become more and more narrow and their tolerance for anything different lessened. TCM should be commended for picking up the slack and giving viewers the chance to see this rare film.
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