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"There is no shortage of ugliness in the world. If man closed his eyes to it, there would be even more. But man is a problem solver. On this screen will appear an image of ugliness...a vision of pain no caring human being should ignore. To wipe out this ugliness and to relieve the victims...is the motive of this film and the hope of its makers."
--Opening narration to The House Is Black
New Wave influence
In the opening shot of this seminal 1963 documentary, poetess Forugh Farrokhzad shows a veiled woman with leprosy gazing at herself in the mirror. That simple, non-judgmental moment captures the deep empathy of a film that has been hailed as the best ever made in Iran and a formative influence on the Iranian New Wave. What follows is no less than a 20-minute poem, an elegy to human kindness and perseverance that would not only influence the development of Iranian cinema, but reflected the French New Wave's contribution to the documentary film.
In 1962, Farrokhzad took a small crew to Tabriz in northern Iran, where they spent 12 days filming life at the nearby Behkadeh Raji leper colony. Despite the forced isolation of the patients there and the fact that many belonged to ethnic minorities traditionally shunned within Iranian society, she managed to win their trust. That allowed her to function almost invisibly, filming private, casual moments as children went to school and played at recess, adults went about their daily chores and attended a wedding and several attended the clinic for treatment. Farrokhzad was so moved by the people she met there that after she finished filming she adopted one of the children, whose parents were both lepers.
The resulting short, black-and-white film reflects the cinema verite aesthetics developed by such filmmakers as Jean Rouch in France, Pierre Perrault in Quebec and Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker in the U.S. Like them, Farrokhzad employs an objective camera to capture life without interpretation and with little recognition of the filmmakers' presence on the part of their subjects. Where she departs from cinema verite is in the use of narration. The House Is Black employs two narrators. Producer Ebrahim Golestan offers a detached male voice reminiscent of the narrations in Jean-Luc Godard's films as he discusses the medical issues related to leprosy, while Farrokhzad's female voice reads quotes from the Old Testament and the Koran along with her own poetry. The latter gives the film a deeper, philosophical tone as it relates the lepers' attempts to live normal lives to universal texts about the beauties of creation.
This was the only film by Farrokhzad, considered the greatest Iranian poet of the 20th century. She was also one of the most controversial artists in mid-20th century Iran, a divorced mother writing in a strong feminine voice within a patriarchal Islamist culture. She had started writing in traditional Persian forms in her mid-teens and began publishing her work shortly after divorcing her husband in 1954. Farrokhzad defied Iranian convention with her frankly emotional work, giving a voice to female interests that had long been suppressed in her country. In addition, she wrote poems reflecting her plight as a woman seeking independence in a nation where most of her gender were expected simply to care for their husbands and children. Instead, she lived independently, ceding custody of her sole child to her former in-laws, while she engaged in a series of close relationships with prominent artists, including poet Nadir Naderpur and cinematographer Golestan, who paid the rent on her apartment and often took her to parties alongside his wife.
At Golestan's urging, she went to England to study filmmaking in 1957 and began working as an editor and production assistant on his films. That led to her writing and directing The House Is Black, with Golestan as producer and co-narrator. Aside from one commercial, she never directed another film, mainly because her life was cut short by an automobile accident when she was 32.
Although The House Is Black was little known in the U.S. for decades, it achieved a strong reputation in Iran and parts of Europe. It won the Grand Prize at the Uberhausen Film Festival in Germany in 1963 and helped win over critics who had found her poetry too sensationalistic. The film's humanism helped them realize the depth of her thinking, which made them look at her earlier works in a new light. In more recent years, the film has been hailed as a key influence on the development of the Iranian New Wave of the '70s and '80s, despite the fact that her poetry was banned for over a decade after the Islamic Revolution that deposed the Shah. Particularly influential was her ability to find the poetic in everyday objects and activities, a trend that continued into the work of filmmakers like Majid Majidi and Abbas Kiarostami. The latter, widely considered the leader of the New Wave, named his 1999 The Wind Will Carry Us for one of Farrokhzad's poems and featured citations from it throughout the film.
By Frank Miller
Producer: Ebrahim Golestan
Director-Screenplay: Forugh Farrokhzad
Cinematography: Soleiman Minasian
Cast: Forugh Farrokhzad (Narrator), Ebrahim Golestan (Narrator), Hossein Mansouri (Himself)