Forough Farrokhzad and The House is Black

By Jason Price

Department of Anthropology, NYU

This essay explores Forough Farrokhzad's 1962 lyrical short documentary about a leprosarium in Azerbaijan. I contend that The House is Black marks an important moment in the history of documentary film, despite its relative obscurity. In my assessment of Farrokhzad's film I hope to: (1) offer a comprehensive textual and structural analysis of the film; (2) locate the film in Farrokhzad's greater, yet tragically abbreviated, body of work; (3) assess the impact of The House is Black on the much talked about "New Wave" of Iranian Cinema; and finally (4) evaluate the film in the broader field of the documentary tradition. Such an essay, to my surprise, has yet to have been written and widely circulated in the English language.

How Kiarostami Led Me to Forough

Bill Nichols has noted that most reviewers focus exclusively upon textual analyses and formal consideration of style and structure, whilst ignoring the specific context wherein they encounter foreign films (Nichols 1994: 16).As this essay relies heavily upon my own textual analysis made according to my own assumptions about film, art and the world, and because one of my central claims is that too few critics have considered Forough's film, I begin with a short narrative about how I came upon The House is Black. After positioning myself within the context of the distribution of the film, I will introduce Forough's life and work, engage in a close reading of the film as a text, and the frame it within the broader contours of the new wave of Iranian Cinema along within the greater tradition of documentary filmmaking.

I stumbled upon Iranian cinema three days back from three years in Africa where I had been teaching English at a community secondary school in an old colonial pine plantation. I had arranged a one-week layover in London en route to New York to re-adjust. I spent my nights in a guesthouse and my days walking around the city - greasy spoons and bridges, the Tate, the Tate Modern, a football match or two...the week is mostly a blur - time to recover and reorient; and yet one evening is particularly clear and crisp in my memory.

Walking past the National Film Theatre of the British Film Institute, a poster caught my attention because of its familiarity. A small boy with white eyes and black skin in a torn, sky blue shirt framed by a bicycle tube and set against an earthy backdrop. The film, ABC Africa, was about AIDS orphans. And the boy in the poster looked like any of a dozen kids I had just left in Malawi. I bought a ticket, sat in the back row, watched the film, and then returned to the guesthouse feeling thoroughly ambivalent about the production. I had never heard of the filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami. The program called him an auteur, one of the greatest living filmmakers in the world. Yet based on this film, I remember thinking, the accolade seemed unjustified. Kiarostami shot ABC Africa with a pair of handheld mini-DV camera over the course of a ten-day tour of Uganda in which he managed to capture everyday life in a Central African region plagued with disease - no more, no less. At the time, the film struck me as an elegant home-movie at best, and a laconic, irresponsible piece of propaganda (the film was commissioned by the United Nations) at worst. Falling asleep in my guesthouse later that evening I never expected to think about the film again.

Over the next few months, however, something strange happened. The images gathered and arranged by Kiarostami in his brief trip to Africa began to come to me in subway cars, on street corners, on supermarket checkout lines, and even in my dreams. They even began to replace my own, personal memories from Africa. Not a single day would pass, in fact, without one of Kiarostami's images visiting my mind. By then, I had taken a job at the Brattle Book Shop in Boston where, one afternoon, I stumbled upon the film critic Phillip Lopate's collection of essays Totally, Tenderly, Tragically. Leafing through the volume, I came upon an interview with Kiarostami, which I read alone in the din of the second floor stacks. Here was Kiarostami speaking about the film Life and Nothing More (which I had not seen, nor even heard of):

You have two types of material in a movie: the kind that is really strong, and maybe has an element of arrogance going with it - and the stuff that is subtle and not smug at all. That's the kind of material that I'm more interested in...Do I want to emphasize the calamity of the earthquake, or the beauty of Nature and the character of the people? [Lopate: 1998: 352]

I kept reading. Following the interview, in an amendment by Lopate that caught my attention and which I still remember, he wrote: "Taste of Cherry solidifies Kiarostami's position as the most important filmmaker working today. In art-cinema terms (though Americans don't know it yet) we are living in the age of Kiarostami, as we once did in the Age of Goddard" (1998: 365). Having felt let in on a secret, and still very much haunted by Kiarostami's images of Africa, I decided to go out and rent Taste of Cherry that night. It was nothing less than a revelation. I sensed that Kiarostami's Range Rover meandering its way through the dusty hills outside of Tehran would never allow me to look at cinema in the same way again. That was nearly four years ago. Since then I have taken seriously my studies of Kiarostami's oeuvre along with the new wave in Iranian Cinema, for which he is considered something of a patriarch. Yet any serious study of Kiarostami or the new wave leads inevitably back to a remarkable woman with unforgettable eyes - the late Forough Farrokhzad, whose poem "The Wind Will Take Us" not only assumes the title of Kiarostami's 1999 masterpiece, but whose traces can be sensed in many of the great Iranian films of the past thirty years.

Who is Forough Farrokhzad?

Forough Farrokhzad died from head injuries after having been thrown from her jeep when crashing into a brick wall in downtown Tehran on Monday, the 14th of February 1967. She was 32 years of age. Tehran's literary magazine Sokhan may have best articulated the general response to Farrokhzad's unexpected death:

Forough is perhaps the first female writer in Persian literature to express the emotions and romantic feelings of the feminine gender in her verse with distinctive frankness and elegance, for which reason she has inaugurated a new chapter in Persian poetry. Prior to her, female writers...expressed general feelings which had no special feminine characteristics and which were the same as 'masculine' poetry...Her untimely death at a time when she was still capable of creating outstanding works is cause for the utmost regret. [Quoted in Hillmann 1986: 132]

Farrokhzad is widely regarded as the greatest woman poet in the history of Persian letters and arguably the finest modernist poet of twentieth century Iran. The undaunted, impassioned, and controversial figure first carved a place for herself among an extraordinary cohort of modernist poets who - following the lead of the great Nima Yushij - reanimated the grand tradition of Persian verse. The great English language translator and interpreter of the modernist movement, Professor Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, explained that "for five-hundred years (i.e., the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries), with few exceptions, Persian poets had been surrounded by conventions, precepts, and rules that gradually wore this mighty poetic tradition down to near stagnation" (Karimi-Hakkak 1978: 2). This was, of course, until the post-Mossadeq / pre-Khomayni period when the great modernist poets such as Ahmad Shamlu, Sohrab Sepehri, Nader Naderpur, and Farrokhzad began to revise one of the most opulent poetic traditions in our world's history.

Regardless of these exciting times, life was never particularly easy for Farrokhzad. As a woman composing poetry about feminine desire and love, she was writing both against the currents of culture, society, and centuries of literary tradition, and without precedent or comradeship. Criticism came fast and furiously. One critic labeled Farrokhzad's poetry as "crude, unrefined, and undirected" and claimed that she "endeavored to incite women against men, assuming that the 'massacre' of men will do away with women's social deprivations and thus women will be completely free!" (quoted in Hillmann 1986: 85, 84) Of course, it did not help that Farrokhzad's life imitated her art. She was an adulterous wife, had all but abandoned her child, and frequently engaged in affairs within the close-knit circles of Tehran's literati - sometimes partnering with married men, as was the case in her famous relationship with the filmmaker Ebrahim Golestan for whom (it is widely assumed) she wrote the following poem, "My Lover":

My lover
with shameless naked body
stands like death
on mighty feet.

Slanting restless lines
his rebellious limbs
in their steadfast patterns.

My lover
comes from forgotten generations
as if
deep in his eyes
a tartar were forever lying
in ambush for a horseman
as if
in the wholesome shine of his teeth
a Berber were transfixed
by the warm blood of prey.

Yet to focus entirely on the sensuous or carnal nature of Farrokhzad's verse, as many critics and historians are prone to do, is a mistake. If Farrokhzad is one of the greatest of modernist Persian poets, than it is not only because her poetry explores an aspect of human experience hitherto ignored in Persian literature (however important that contribution may be). Instead, Farrokhzad's greatness extends beyond the realm of the thematic (in this case: feminine desire) and towards something more stylistic: in particular, an innovative and astonishingly authentic personal voice rooted in the tribulations, glories and ennui of everyday life and experience and accented by a profoundly humanistic understanding of the external world. An impassioned, subjective voice had been absent throughout the long centuries of ornate, abstract traditional Persian verse; and so it is this unique voice that Farrokhzad supplies to the cannon - a voice that is most evident in her final volume of poetry, Another Birth. Below are three verses selected verses from the title poem.

This is my lot
This is my lot
My lot
Is a sky concealed from me
By the hanging of a curtain
My lot is descending a deserted stairway
And union with something dismembered and decayed.
My lot is a sad walk in the garden of memories
and dying in despair of the voice
that tells me:
"I love
your hands."

I plant my hands in the garden
I will sprout
I know, I know, I know
And in the hollow of my ink-stained hands
The swallow will lay eggs.

I will hang over my ear
Pendants of twin red cherries
And stick dahlia petals on my nails.

The publication of Another Birth conferred upon Farrokhzad a certain legitimacy in Tehran's literati circles. In his 1964 article "On the Subject of Forough Farrokhzad's Poetry," Mehrdad Samadi wrote that "a major achievement of 'Another Birth' and subsequent poems lies in the rhythm which the poet has given to her particular language and the manner in which she has harmonized this rhythm with her language, the result of which is the most natural expression in our contemporary poetry" (quoted in Hillmann 1986: 110). Farrokhzad herself also seemed to understand that she was on the threshold of something far greater in her poetry. In an interview given about 18 months before her death, Hillmann notes that "she expressed regret at having published the Captive, Wall, and Rebellion volumes and asserts that only with the Another Birth poems does she begin to believe in poetry and feel that what she is composing are truly poems" (1986: 61). In a 1964 interview she expressed a total commitment to her craft, "Poetry is a serious business for me. It is a responsibility I feel vis-à-vis my own being. It is a sort of answer I feel compelled to give to my own life..." (quoted in 1986: 142). Indeed, this is why Sokhan magazine had noted that Farrokhzad's death was "untimely" - for it came at a time when she was just beginning to find her own true voice - a truly great and original voice in the history of Persian letters. The collected poems of Forough Farrokhzad, therefore, represent not the final output of a master poet, but the promise of a master poet only coming into being.

Amidst Farrokhzad's development as a poet were brief excursions into other forms of art - the theatre, photography, painting and filmmaking. As we have already noted, Farrokhzad had a controversial affair with the activist and filmmaker Ebrahim Golestan, whom she worked for as an assistant. The relationship provided Farrokhzad with the opportunity to learn filmmaking. In 1959 she headed to England for a short course in film production, returning to edit Golestan's production A Fire which chronicled an oil well blaze that raged for more than two months. In 1962, Farrokhzad made her own film: traveling with a small crew to Tabriz, where she spent 12 days documenting life inside a leprosarium. The experience was life changing and marked a crucial turn in her development as an artist. Michael Hillman, Farrokhzad's only biographer, notes, "Forough later expressed deep personal satisfaction with the project insofar as she had been able to gain the lepers' trust and become their friend while among them....

As for the significance of The House is Black, it had the effect of presenting Farrokhzad in a new light to some devotees of modernist literature and other intellectuals previously unconvinced of her seriousness or sincerity as an artist. Hitherto imputing some sensationalism and deliberate attention-seeking to her poetry and life style, the talent and feeling that the film revealed changed their minds. [Hillmann 1986: 43]

The House is Black is now widely recognized as an important precursor to the critically acclaimed New Wave of Iranian Cinema of the 1980s and 1990s. For the filmmaker, writer and dissident Mohsen Makhmalbaf, it is "the best Iranian film [to have] affected the contemporary Iranian cinema" (quoted in Saeed-Vafa and Rosenbaum 2003: 2). Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing about Abbas Kiarostami and his impact on Iranian Cinema, paused to note the impact of Farrokhzad's film on the auteur's body of work and went onto say that "among the sixty or seventy [Iranian films] I've seen to date, [The House is Black] is the greatest of all Iranian films" (2003: 2). It is strange and unfortunate, then, that there has been so little acknowledgement and treatment of the film by cinema and culture critics in North America and Europe. One of the aims of this essay, of course, is to introduce Farrokhzad's masterpiece - and I believe that the evidence above warrants this label - into contemporary discussions regarding the nature and history of documentary film and the new wave in Iranian cinema.

To that end, I turn now to The House is Black. I begin not with a reading of the film, but with a writing of it. I believe there are good reasons to begin with a comprehensive treatment of the film instead of an interpretive textual analysis. First, one of the key assumptions that under gird this essay is that few readers have seen this film; therefore, I must find a way to share the content of the film with the uninitiated reader. The writing of the film below accomplishes that important task. Second, this is an extraordinarily rich film whose full effect relies heavily upon juxtaposition and montage. The sophistication behind the filmic composition is difficult to gauge after one or even two viewings. I have found that some of the most important features of the film only reveal themselves through the writing down - and therefore - slowing down, of these images. Third, Farrokhzad was a photographer long before she was a filmmaker and one way to appreciate the beauty and talent of her photographic eye is through a detailed explanation of the image on the screen. In other words, through the writing of the film we are exposed to the sheer beauty of each passing shot. For, in some regards this film (more so than others) is a dramatic collection of moving stills. Finally, Farrokhzad is widely recognized as the greatest woman poet in the history of Persian letters and perhaps the greatest of all modernist Persian poets. Her verse is central to this film. And only through a writing of the film can we truly appreciate her verse and match it with some of the images that cross before our eyes upon the screen. In a viewing, this verse tends to dissolve or slip away or to be ignored for the sake of the images. I have no great faith in that obscure and intensely frustrating French post-structuralist literary critic Jacques Derrida. However, he did contend, and I think in this case rightfully so, that writing and not reading and speaking was the single most insightful form of expression and communication. For it is within the writing of things that the world becomes plain and that grammar and syntax become visible. Joan Didion, the great Californian essayist, concurred when she explained that true discovery - of herself and things and the world at large - came through the practice of writing them down. In that spirit, I offer you something of an ethnography of Farrokhzad's classic The House is Black.

The House is Black - A Writing

Black screen fades to blackboard - dusty with chalk, the traces of a day's lessons. Written in Farsi in the center is: "The House is Black." Fade to black, again. A man's voice, warm and objective, explains the filmmaker's expectations.

There is no shortness 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 the motive of this film and the hope of its makers.

(a) The Mirror

The first shot. A rectangular mirror stands upright on a single shelf. The shelf casts a slight shadow upon a bright, white wall. To the right of the mirror on the shelf sits a simple teapot, a still life frozen in time and space, its subtle form outlined by the bright wall behind it. To the left of the mirror looms a person draped in clothes, staring deeply into the mirror. The camera slowly zooms into the reflection. The closer we come, the more plain is the deformity. The right side of the woman's face is awash in milky flesh. Her right eyeball rolls inside a small, droopy slit. A fraction of the left side of her face is discernable. It hints at a self trapped beneath layers of skin. With her left eye only, the woman studies the reflection. She stares, then looks down, then up, then down again, and then up again. She blinks once, twice, three times - but only with her top eyelid, for the bottom has gone lymph and looks as if it will soon be swallowed by disease. On the left-hand side of the mirror, we see three flowers that have been inscribed in the glass. The voice of a child breaks the silence.

(b) The Classroom

We are now in a classroom. A boy in his early teens with a grizzly face stands at his desk and reads with great care and devotion from an open book. A second boy reads. He is handsome and inquisitive. In the background, we see his classmates' faces - all of which are in various states of deformity. A third boy reads. He grips the spine of the book tightly with the fingers in his right hand, and rests the cover of the book on a nub that was once his left hand. A boy in the center of the classroom stares dubiously over the reader's left shoulder and into the lens of the camera. A fourth boy reads, followed by a fifth, and then a final young man. He has a small mustache and reads clumsily while a younger boy sits in the foreground, staring up towards the head of the classroom. This is what each has read:

1st Student: Oh God, I thank you for creating me...
I thank you for creating my dear mother and kind father
2nd Student: I thank you for creating water, and trees, and plants bearing fruits
3rd Student: I thank you for giving me hands so that I am able to do work
4th Student: I thank you for giving me eyes so that I am able see the beauties of the world.
5th Student: I thank you for giving me ears so that I am able to hear sweet songs
6th Student: I thank you for giving me feet so that I can go to anywhere I see.

The camera pans through the center aisle of the classroom, keeping a cool distance, examining the different faces of schoolchildren. Every face is unique. Yet they all appear uncomfortably stiff and stern and somehow older. A gentle voice - Farrokhzad's - says in a voiceover: "In Hell, who is it that praises you, o God? In Hell, who is it?" The boys in the final row are bathed in sunlight that breaks through an unseen window. Meantime, we hear a deranged voice, singing, and the snapping of fingers.

(c) "The Man in Tatters" Montage

A pair of bare feet extends from ragged trousers and dance on stone rocks to the beat of a song that sounds like gibberish - "la di dee dee, di dee dee, di dee dee dee, la di dee dee, la dee dee, di dee dee dee..." The camera pans up. The man is nearly middle-aged, dressed in rags, his right arm held close to his body as if hung in an imaginary sling. He snaps his fingers with his left hand. A grove of olive trees, full of light and darkness, can be seen in the distance. "La di dee dee, di dee dee, di dee dee dee, la di dee dee, la dee dee, di dee dee dee...Pop!" he screams. A baby turns around, looking upwards. She has just climbed to her feet and maintains her balance with the aid of a small branch. A face of extraordinary deformity peers down through dark empty holes that signify eyes. The mouth wiggles. We hear an owl in the distance. A woman with a swollen face, draped in clothes is knitting. A young man missing his nose leans back almost defiantly against a wall. Looking through the camera, he puffs his cigarette held by half fingers. All of these figures are seen in rapid suggestion, and all the while an owl is heard in the distance.

A man walks along the long end of an unidentified building, towards the camera that stands at a far corner. With each step, the man touches the building with the outside of his left hand. He walks ever so slowly and touches the building a number of times. The camera does not move. There is no cutting. When he walks beyond the building, he touches only air; and so he turns around, and walks away from the camera, touching the building now with the outside of his right hand. He continues to walk slowly and quite far into the distance. The camera does not move, it only watches. Faintly, in the background we hear Farrokhzad's voice:


The man eventually stops, turns around, and resumes his walk towards the camera, touching the building again and again with the outside of his left hand. He is walking past screened windows. Each time he passes one, we catch a quick glimpse at the window. In the first window, flowerpots bask in the sunlight. The man continues to walk. In the second, a woman covered by a white head scarf stands upright beside a flowerpot, gripping the windowsill with crooked fingers. The man continues to walk. We see three small objects - household appliances of some sort - in the third window. The man continues to walk. In the fourth, a man with a mustache sits and smiles, peering through something that looks like a piece of cloth. The man continues to walk. There is a pair of black boots drying in the sun along with a bottle in the fifth window. The man continues to walk. In the sixth, a small girl stands inside the window frame: half-clothed, pressing the sun-drenched palms of her hands against the screen, a blank look in her eyes, her mother standing like a ghost in the shadows behind her. The man arrives at the corner of the building and reaches for air, once again. We hear the lonely cry of an owl in the background. Farrokhzad's voice interjects:

I will sing your name, o exalted one
I will sing your name with the ten-stringed lute
Because I have been made in a hideous and strange form

A quick shot of the deranged man in tatters. This time he brings his feet together and offers the camera a military salute. The man walking besides the building turns and resumes his vigil. The camera now pans down a line of men sitting idly against another building. Many of them wear hats to keep the bright sun out of their eyes. Many hold canes. The last man grips a pipe with his left hand and tries desperately to ignite a lighter with his right. He tries once, twice, three times, four times, five times - flick, flick, flick, flick, flick. None one assists. A woman rests her head on her right hand, her eyes lost somewhere inside her diseased face. The man beside her rubs prayer beads, his face outside the frame. We now hear crows in the distance. A wide angle shot of men sitting idly outside a building held up by rows of slender columns. A man in the foreground wears tight black goggles, rests on a cane, and stares off into the distance.

(d) Medical Treatment

The camera sits on the floor of a long, dark corridor. A nurse wheels a patient at the camera. A bell rings in the distance. The male narrator's voice returns and begins a detailed explanation of the nature and treatment of leprosy.

Leprosy is chronic and contagious. Leprosy is not hereditary. Leprosy can be anywhere or everywhere. Leprosy goes with poverty. Upon attacking the body, it deepens and enlarges wrinkles, eats away the tissues, covers the nerves with a dry shield, dulls sensitivity to heat and touch, causes blindness, destroys the nasal septum, it finds its way to the liver and bone marrow, withers the fingers, it clears the way for other diseases. Leprosy is not incurable. Taking care of lepers stops the disease from spreading. Wherever lepers have been adequately cared for, the disease has vanished. When the leper is cared for early he can be treated completely. Leprosy is not incurable.

A montage of different therapies accompanies the voiceover. A nurse breaks through some doors carrying a porcelain bowl. A pair of nurses in white dresses solemnly walks a patient in a black suit down a gray corridor. A doctor sticks his finger deep inside the mouth of a patient laid out on a table. Another doctor peels back deformed skin and examines eyes. Another doctor pinches skin on wrists and forearms. Another doctor examines hands with no fingers. A man sits on his bed eating from a bowl, flowers in a vase beside him. A quick turn of the camera and we see a nurse covering an old man with blankets. Another quick turn to see a young doctor examining a man's forearm. A new shot - a foot badly eaten away by disease extending from a man's body. He looks past the appendage into the lens of the camera. A hand in a plastic-glove holding tweezers that grip a cotton ball extends from outside the frame to treat the foot. The treatment becomes more and more rigorous - probing deeper and deeper into the decay. Meantime, the man stares ahead through fleshy, swollen eyes. Doctors treat one, two, three patients with eye-drops. Pliers scrape dead skin from an infested foot - all the while we can hear the sound of this metal tearing and scratching the rough, leathery skin. A bandage is wrapped around a foot. A young man rests his hands behind his head and works out on a horizontal exercise bike. The wheels squeak terribly. We look up through a pane of glass where sandbags are placed on a woman's crippled hands to flatten her fingers. She looks up hesitantly. The man continues to pedal. Doctors move fingers for one, two, three different patients. A second set of sandbags are added to the poor woman's hands. Clothespins are placed on cardboard. The poor woman waits with the sandbags pressing down on her lymph fingers. The man continues to pedal wheels that continue to squeak. Nurse's feet escort patient's feet. The man continues to pedal. A nurse walks a patient through a corridor. The poor woman sits still as her lymph fingers are flattened by sandbags and we hear the confident sound of feet marching down a corridor in the distance. The montage ends.

A horde of people surround a small white cart equipped with papers containing what we can only presume to be medication. Many of the faces are familiar - the singing man is there as is the nose-less smoker, and the man in the black goggles. Again, the white arm of a doctor extends into the frame. It picks up a white paper and offers it to the crowd. There is much chatter. Some people say only "bale" ("yes") - yet make no move. Alas, a man with a wry grin steps up and accepts the paper. Some look suspicious, others tired, some angry, a few grin. One by one, others follow, and accept the paper - a man with a hat, a young girl under a head scarf, and more. Yet we keep cutting back to the deranged, singing man who, speaking nonsense, has begun to receive encouragement from the men behind him. One man keeps his sports jacket raised over his head, as if there were rain. A final look around at the faces of the people in the crowd, and we begin to hear the call to prayer.

(e) Prayer

A man is singing - his hands pressed against his face - in the background, silhouetted trees against a blank, pale sky. The window of a mosque. Inside we peer up at a devotee, deep in prayer. A thick mustache and beard, moth-eaten overcoat and hat, eyes closed in recitation, his arms held upwards in praise. And yet, an absent right hand, a feeble and pathetic left hand. The camera moves through the mosque, different men in different stances of prayer. Some kneel, other stand, others lie prostrate. Their deep, monotonous prayers are pervasive.

Suddenly, a wild montage: the man missing his hand; the poor woman and her sandbags; a man without a nose lifts his palms to God; a man reads from the Quran; tweezers remove cotton dressing from a disease eaten foot; the profile of a nub that was once a hand raised in the air inside the mosque; dead skin picked from a foot with pliers; more men in prayer; a small boy with a badly deformed nose examined by a doctor; again, men in prayer; the man with the badly eaten foot stares at his toes; three different shots of men in prayer; the man with incomparable deformity, again; men in prayer inside the mosque, again; a man rubs his beads; another man kisses the bottom of a shrine; and finally, that obscure, abstract image of the mosque through the window.

(f) Mealtime

A man with a dark mustache in a small hat blows a whistle. A flood of people emerge. Woman carrying bowls and trays on their heads, men resting bowls and trays on their shoulders, small children shuffling to and fro ... all on their ways to three open windows. A true clamor for space. A woman arrives late, her small baby tied to her back. From inside the building, tray upon tray, bowl after bowl are stacked upon one another. They are returned full of food. People get hold of their food, swing around violently, and push their way through the mob. A single woman emerges from the pack. She is familiar. It was her whose face was in the reflection of the mirror. A family scoops spoonfuls of food into their mouths...children, parents, grandparents. Farrokhzad's voice arrives:

I said, if only the wind were to me like it is to a dove...
So I could fly and find relief
I would hurry towards shelter from the intense wind and violent storm
Because I have seen hardship and wickedness on the ground.

(g) The View from the Wheelbarrow

A young girl grasps a small doll and is pushed over uneven ground by a faceless man in an otherwise empty, yet terribly squeaky wheelbarrow. A crouching woman surrounded by black chickens washes dirty dishes. The girl is pushed in the squeaky wheelbarrow. A young girl chews something beside a white chicken. The girl is pushed in the squeaky wheelbarrow. A man with sunglasses squats beside a water fountain. The girl is pushed in the squeaky wheelbarrow. A man with no nose stares at the ground and caresses the beads on a necklace, a forest behind him in the distance. The girl is pushed in the squeaky wheelbarrow. A pair of women knit. Another woman washes a baby's bare legs. The girl is pushed in the squeaky wheelbarrow. The woman whose face we saw in the mirror's reflection carefully knits. A woman shapes her daughter's hair with tip-less fingers. The girl is pushed in the squeaky wheelbarrow. An exceedingly fast montage begins - a man without fingers rubs his face with only his palms; man with only half a face smiles; the ragged bare feet of the deranged man dance; a young beautiful, yet deeply deformed girl squats; a woman hides inside her burka; the nose-less man smokes his cigarette; the man with incomparable deformity smiles and look down. And the girl continues to be pushed in the squeaky wheelbarrow.

(h) The Pond

The camera pans alongside the surface of a shallow pond, littered in autumn leaves, that reflects the afternoon light. And now, Farrokhzad's careful voice:

From the bitterness of my own soul I speak
From the bitterness of my own soul I speak
When I was silent, my soul was decaying from all shouting I was doing
all day long
Remember that my life is wind?

I have become like spilled water
and like those that have died long ago.
And upon my eyelashes are shadows of death
Upon my eyelashes are shadows of death

Leave me, leave me
For my days are a breath...
Leave me before I go to a place from which there is no return
To a dense, dark land

A woman peers up at the camera, defiantly. A single leaf falls into the pond. The water shakes and disrupts the clear reflection of the tree branches above. A window set in a wall; we pan down to see a chicken shaking its feathers. We hear a crow in the distance. Three chickens huddled together next to a small stone wall. A pair of blind baby pigs lay in the sun on warm rocks. We hear all of these animals in the distance. A baby pauses from feeding. The lymph breast and bare nipple sit and await the child. The mother peers up at the camera, again. Farrokhzad speaks:

From the bitterness of my own soul I speak
From the bitterness of my own soul I speak
When I was silent, my soul was decaying from all shouting I was doing
all day long
Remember that my life is wind?

I have become like spilled water
and like those that have died long ago.
And upon my eyelashes are shadows of death
Upon my eyelashes are shadows of death

Leave me, leave me
For my days are a breath...
Leave me before I go to a place from which there is no return
To a dense, dark land

A dog picks up a small lymph animal, perhaps one of the blind baby pigs. We pan down and watch the baby as it sucks its mother's breast. Her tiny hand grips the breast. The dog finally grips the animal in its mouth, lifts it from the ground, and finally delivers it out of frame. We are left with a landscape of sun-drenched rocks, a single bush, and the forest in the distance. Two autumn leaves float in the pond. The man with incomparable deformity is looking down at the leaves in the pond. He is smiling; and flies crawl along his face.

(i) Games

A little girl giggles yet all we see is the sun bathing a patch of earth. Soon the girl scurries into the frame, a small shovel dragged between her legs. The soundtrack is all giggles. A little boy watches coyly nearby. She continues towards a grove of olive trees, casting a long shadow in her wake. Alas, the boy pops up and runs after her, swiping a man's lone crutch along the way. Birds scatter in the sky. And the boy runs with the crutch dangling between his legs. The crutch-less man turns only to see the children dart into a grove of olive trees. Birds scatter in the sky. Farrokhzad:

Oh God, don't commit the soul of your creation to a wild animal. Please don't abandon me.


The deranged singing man sits awkwardly in a pile of stones, tossing a single pebble up and down, up and down. Unidentified hands move rocks in a game inscribed in the earth. Men survey their next move. Farrokhzad:

Remember that my life is wind?
And you have condemned me to idleness?

Another quick montage: the deranged man's bare feet dancing on rocks, yet again; two men gripping one another by collars in the early stages of a brawl; spectators smile and jest and open their eyes in surprise; a man wipes his face with fingerless palms, yet again; after some struggle, one man is brought to the ground; the pacing man continues to walk up and down the building, touching it with his left hand; the brawlers smile and hug; the pacing man reaches the end of the building, grabs only air, and turns around again; dancing bare feet; fingers moving rocks; a spindle spins; another move is made in the game; now we hear something like a guitar and see two men sitting upright; one man beats an instrument, while the other sits motionless with sunglasses; three woman working around a spindle; another move is made; the breast-fed baby is swung in her cradle by its mother; two moves are made simultaneously; a man's face is shaved; another move is made. The editing slows dramatically. A person who has lost their right foot moves like a spider across a floor and takes a seat beside a child and puts his arm around her. We never see his face. Silence. The dark hole of a cave. Gradually, we hear the voice of a man singing and see a figure emerge into the light. He wears sunglasses and holds a pale in each hand. Farrokhzad's voice:

Come listen to the song of someone who is singing in the pathless desert
The song of someone who sighs and extends their hands and says
'Woe is me! For my soul, due to my wounds, has become unconscious.'

(j) A Wedding

The camera glides slowly, low to the ground, coming from behind two women - one who is carefully combing the long, black mane of another. The camera slowly turns to offer us a close-up of the women's faces. But they are not women. They are beautiful girls with large brown eyes and they look up at us with modesty. Again, we see the image of the same mad, singing man. The girls look beyond the camera for a moment, and then break into smiles and laughter.

A sudden shift to an older woman sitting alone in her room. She carefully applies mascara deeply into her eyes. Her hands are diseased, as is her face. Her mouth is long and droopy at both ends. Her image is uncanny. In the background, we hear the madman's song, uninterrupted.

Cut to another woman brushing her own equally long black hair. She is framed by a window with a flowerpot on the sill.

Back to the woman applying mascara. She looks up and holds the makeup at her eye, the cosmetic smears. She looks down and up. She looks down again.

Cut back to the woman combing her hair. She brushes carefully - lodging the comb in between fleshy stubs, the pitiful traces of fingers and thumbs. She ends, looks at the camera and smiles.

A celebration!

A drum covers the face of a person who beats it carefully with her fingers. A woman dances and waves handkerchiefs much to the enjoyment of the crowd around her who clap and sing. A woman in a black burka arrives carrying a tray full of food on her head. They all move forward. This is a procession. Women with deformed, diseased faces shuffle through a narrow doorway and into a home, many of whom carry children. We hear folk music. Men play guitars and flutes and recorders and watch nearby with deep smiles. More clapping. Anticipation. A figure covered by an ornate veil. There are pictures of glamorous women on the walls. Two hands emerge and slowly remove the veil. A manic, older man mimics the action of the unveiling. Suddenly, the face of the bride emerges, ornamented with jewels, two rosy circles painted on her cheeks. The woman with the painted mascara flirts with a man holding a pipe. His arm stretches around her shoulder. He turns his head. His profile is incomplete. He, too, has no nose. The bride's face again, followed by the cruel and deformed faces of strangers. The bride's eyes roll back into her head. The musicians play. The dancers dance. An officious cleric walks away, surveying the scene.

(k) Recess

A courtyard filled with schoolchildren. A boy from the opening classroom scene entertains himself by bouncing a ball and spinning around, over and over again. Other boys look on, smiling. Finally, he stops, catches the ball, and tosses it to the mass of young men around him. Some are barefoot, others not. A makeshift game of volleyball begins, with no teams, no net, and no boundaries. The boys are all smiles. They lift their hands above their heads and bat the ball back into the sky. A cacophony of yelps and screams and calls. Alas, one ball is knocked beyond the area and the original boy is sent running awkwardly into the olive grove to retrieve it. He runs amidst shouts and laughter, bends down, picks the ball up with both hands, runs awkwardly back, and tosses the ball underhand to the other boys.

(l) The Path

The screams end and we are now in silence. We are looking through the doorway of a building. There is an earthy path that leads into the distance with olive trees along each side. In the middle of the path, we see a man in a black suit walking slowly with the aid of crutches. Only his right leg is complete. There is faint birdsong in the distance. It may have just rained, for over the man's shoulder glisten three small puddles. Little-by-little the man makes his way to the door, and to the camera. Farrokhzad's voice breaks the silence:

God help me, because the day is gently fading
and the shadows of evening are lengthening
And our existence,
like a cage full of birds,
is full of the groans of captivity
Like turtledoves, we beg for justice
But there is not any justice
We await the light,
and now (this moment) a godsend.

The man enters the house and walks directly into the camera and the screen turns black and all we can hear is the ominous knocking sound of wood on wood. And then, the voice of a child:

'The Neptune Star':
Sometimes at night we see a bright star.
This star is called the Neptune star.
This star is very bright.
The Neptune star is very close to us.
The Neptune star doesn't twinkle at us.

(m) Classroom II

The final scene in the film and we have returned to the classroom. A schoolteacher looks down at his class. The filmmakers pan quickly through the classroom, yet again. This time, all of the children look down at their books. A shot of the schoolteacher and then of a young boy who stands and reads with great commitment from the first row.

The schoolteacher asks, "Why must we care for mothers and fathers?" We see the students' faces. And now the teacher pointing with his left hand, ", answer."

An innocent child with sweet eyes and a natural grimace responds, "I don't know, I don't have any parents."

The teacher blinks, looks up and points again at another student with his left hand, "You. Say the name of some pretty things."

A small boy looks down and thinks. A student coughs. Another boy whispers to his friend who tries not to laugh. He thinks of an answer, raises a finger and says, "The moon, sun, flowers, and play."

A boy in the front row - the leader of the volleyball match - peaks out from behind his desk, smiling wildly. Students laugh and the boy who delivered the answer smiles.

The teacher looks down upon the smiling boy and says, "You. Say the name of some ugly things."

He thinks for a moment and then responds, "Hands, feet, eyes."

A number of his classmates break out laughing.

The teacher is not amused. He stares sternly at the boy.

In the back rows, a boy turns and plucks the earlobe of his friend and pretends not to have done it. The boy turns quickly at the other, and they smile.

At the front of the classroom, the teacher has called a young man to the board. He is already bald from disease. The teacher says, "Write a sentence using the word house." The boy closes his mouth and nervously looks around. We see some of the younger students in the first rows.

A dramatic cut to outside where a parade of lepers walk along the main dirt road of the leprosarium, hand-in-hand before a large wooden gate bearing the title "LEPER COLONY" closes in front of them.

Back in the classroom. The boy turns, looks at his teacher, and writes on the blackboard, "The house is black."

The film ends.

The House is Black - A Reading

Over a twelve-day period in the autumn of 1962, the poet Forough Farrokhzad traveled to Tabriz to make a film about life inside a leprosarium. She was 27 years of age and had never before made a film. Nearly half-a-century later, the 20 minute lyrical, short documentary survives and has proven to be of extraordinary relevance and inspiration, mostly to the New Wave of Iranian cinema which produced some of the twentieth century's most critically acclaimed filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Majid Majidi, and Bahram Beyzaie. Still, Farrokhzad's film has gone virtually unnoticed by Western critics and scholars.

In this essay, I have offered a backwards glance as to the manner in which I was led to Farrokhzad's great film; I have provided an abbreviated, though comprehensive introduction to her life, character and body of work; and I have included a detailed shot-by-shot, scene-by-scene treatment of the film, in order to bring the work's richness, complexity and sophistication into light. Now that the writing is over, it is time for the reading to begin - or, in other words, for an act of formal interpretation and criticism of the text.

In the following paragraphs I will make several points. First, Farrokhzad successfully documents a naturalized "other" and subverts ethical dilemmas through a poetic and metaphysical rejection of difference that comes with a total commitment to persons. Second, the filmmaker uses artifice and manipulation to manufacture deeper truths (in Vertov and Rouch's sense of the term) that would regularly escape a documentarian's lens. Third, Farrokhzad uses techniques and selects content that effectively humanizes a form of life that is nominally denied human categorization. Fourth, the filmmaker manages to restore personhood to individuals whom regularly lose consideration as complex social beings and selves. Fifth, Farrokhzad forges a handful of purely artistic achievements through her use of light, shadow, framing, juxtaposition, rhythm, sound, poetry, montage, characterization, imagery, metaphor, symbolism and narrative development. Sixth, the film can be read as a potent political statement about the nature of stigma and state-funded healthcare in Post-Mossadeq Iranian society. Seventh, the film can be read as a philosophical statement of various sorts - about the nature of personhood, suffering, the body and its relationship to disease and health, or what it means to be human, in general. All of this is accomplished, I will argue, in a twenty-minute film by a first-time filmmaker in her late twenties.

(a) On Methodology

Farrokhzad was particularly proud of the trust she gained from the lepers in Tabriz. This, of course, was no small task considering the threat of contagion, the lepers' spatial remove from society, centuries of naturalized and pathologized social stigma, along with the fact that a vast majority of the patients were not Persian (most were ethnic minorities coming from poor mountain villages). In other words, it would have been difficult for Farrokhzad and her crew to have encountered a group of people within a relatively short distance that were any more "other." As a result, she was forced to negotiate (in a particularly short amount of time) complex oppositions between health and disease, ethnic majority and ethnic minority, the beautiful and the grotesque, urban and rural, man and woman, rich and poor, and privileged and damned.

In twelve short (or, presumably, very long) days, Farrokhzad accomplished this great feat through a bridging of these difficult divides. She won the lepers trust and gained remarkable access to some of the most intimate moments of their lives. She took her camera inside homes, classrooms, hospitals, and even mosques. She filmed women alone brushing their hair and applying their makeup. She filmed men laying prostrate in praise of God and small boys in the rapture of a ball game. She filmed women breastfeeding their children and a man staring sentimentally at autumn leaves floating in a pond. In short, only by making herself fully open and available to her subjects did she disappear into the scenery. By making herself fully visible she became invisible. By exposing herself (that is, by risking contagion and sharing her poetry and living amongst the patients for nearly two weeks), she exposed the other.

In Calvin Prylock's helpful, yet frustrating chapter in Rosenthal's exhaustive New Challenges for the Documentary, Prylock provides us with some useful vocabulary to think about the complicated nature of filming "the other," namely: ethics, relationship, consequences, morality, privacy, consent, exploitation, persuasion, deceit, intentions, disclosure, rights, infringements, integrity, influence, permission, and collaboration. Prylock's writing, for the most part, is muddled and disorganized, his assumptions naïve and weak, and his arguments (when he does venture to make one) strange and flimsy. Yet his main point is important, for it articulates a paranoid and defensive approach to interacting with human subjects that is very much en vogue today - an effect, no doubt, of the so-called 'crisis of representation' that rocked social and cultural anthropology in the 1970s.

This is a thesis best articulated through a serious of quotations: "with the growth of direct cinema, the ethical problem of the relationship of filmmakers to the people in their films became more amorphous," "more than morality is involved; ethical assumptions have aesthetic consequences, and aesthetic assumptions have ethical consequences, "consent and privacy are too complex to be dismissed in a dozen words," "the method of obtaining consent is stacked in the filmmaker's favor," "coercion takes many forms"; "filmmakers cannot know which of their actions are apt to hurt other people; it is presumptuous of them to act as if they did"; "the right to privacy is the right to decide how much, to whom, and when disclosures about one's self are to be made. "the known and unknown hazards posed by direct cinema suggest the necessity for extreme caution on the part of filmmakers in dealing with potential infringements on the rights of subjects"; "consent is flawed when obtained by the omission of any fact that might influence the giving or withholding of permission," "the idea of the subject participating in the creative not completely unknown"; "collaboration obviously discharges one ethical responsibility." There is nothing new here, of course. And Prylock is good enough to point out that "this is not uncharted ground; while the problems may be unique to our era, they are not unique to documentary filming or sound recording. The ethical problems of the conjunction of the search for knowledge, new ethnology, and individual integrity have been extensively considered in the fields of medicine and the social sciences" (Rosenthal 1988: 260 - 265).

All in all, Prylock argues that any act of representation is essentially a political act fraught with economic, cultural, and moral dilemmas; and that the only way to evade such dilemmas is through transparent forms of consent and collaboration. In principle, it is difficult to disagree with him. We must also acknowledge, however, that mechanistic acts of consent and forced acts of collaboration can also backfire and cripple a project of representation.

I seriously doubt that Farrokhzad filmed The House is Black with a camera in one hand and a fistful of informed consent forms in another, or that she was forced (or even asked) to justify her film before an ethics review board at the Iranian Ministry of Media and Television, or that she worked closely with any number of lepers in the production or post-production of this project. By Prylock's standards, her production would certainly be suspect, probably unfair, and perhaps even misrepresentative and unethical. These are the broad standards that are very much alive and well and dictating social science research and documentary production today. And yet, despite these presumed transgressions, Farrokhzad has produced a film - on most accounts - of great sensitivity, accuracy, truth, and humanity.

Farrokhzad achieved her great success through a deep love, trust, and a giving over of herself to her subjects and, surprisingly, through a large degree of artifice. If nothing else, a writing of the film reveals a substantial amount of artifice used by the filmmakers. Images are cut and re-cut, cast and re-cast in different forms. These manipulations create scenes and moments, experiences and actions that never happened. Yet somehow they capture a deeper feeling or truth existed inside the leprosarium.

For example, in the first shots of the wedding scene it is highly unlikely that the girls who are brushing one another's hair in the sun are looking up and smiling at the image of a deranged man dressed in tatters who is signing and dancing barefoot on sharp stones. They are most likely smiling at the filmmaker standing behind the camera. But the artifice that motivates the editing of that scene conveys a certain truth that would have been difficult for Farrokhzad to have captured through the lens of her camera otherwise. As viewers, we get the sense that the children are at peace with the sights and sounds around them, that this is their world, for better or for worse. Would it have been possible to convey this impression of reality through image-and-sequence based forms of knowledge without the aid of manipulation?

Another example would be the opening scene of the film in which we slowly pan in on a woman who rigorously studies her own deformed image. This scene feels intimate and private, as if we are not there, as if we - as viewers - have been offered privileged access into the psyche of a single patient. This is a fabrication, of course. The scene has been staged and shot, and perhaps re-shot over a number of takes. But that does not mean it is untrue! The point here is not to debate the ethics of Farrokhzad's endeavor, but to use her experience as something like a projective screen in which we can cast some of the key debates in documentary production and social science research today. How does Farrokhzad's production help us understand critical issues in documentary production that deal with truth and ethical responsibility?

(b) On Persons

Thus far the discussion has focused upon the nature of Farrokhzad's methodology. I have attempted to prove that she overcame extraordinary hurdles in order to successfully represent a naturalized "other," not through conventional methods of manufactured consent and awkward collaboration, but instead through a poetic and metaphysical rejection of difference that manifests itself in her own emotional, biological, psychological and intellectual commitment to her subjects as complex persons in their own right, and technically, through thoughtful and ethical means of aesthetic manipulation and artifice. This is how she managed to successfully represent the lives of the residents of the leprosarium in Tabriz. It is fascinating and relevant to documentarians of all stripes because it confounds popular notions about the means and ethics of documentary production.

I would like now to engage in a different reading of Farrokhzad's film - namely, the way in which the filmmaker restores a sense of humanity within the leprosarium and reframe her subjects as legitimate persons. This may be the most important question to ask about the film: In about 20 minutes of screen time, how does a 27 year old filmmaker from Tehran transform a rural, stigmatized reservoir of disease into a wellspring of humanity and grotesque monsters into veritable persons. In other words: How does Farrokhzad make the leprosarium a humane space? And how does she transform lepers back into people? For this, in my opinion, is the film's greatest achievement.

Below, I will argue that Farrokhzad reconstitutes her subjects' humanity and personhood by employing a number of subtle, yet effective techniques in the production and post-production of her film: first, she plays with the distance between herself, her subject, and her audience; second, she emphasizes unspectacular, everyday acts; third, she employs an extraordinarily diverse number of shooting styles - from close-ups to wide angles, from long-takes to jump-cuts and montage. Allow me to locate a few examples of these techniques from the film.

1. Distance and Space

The space between her subjects, herself, and the audience is crucial element in the production and reception of the film. The House is Black is about a leper colony (perhaps the quintessential place of human suffering in the world) a place that usually clings to the margins of society - quarantined, distant, other, far away from "normal" life. Farrokhzad, as we have already noted, is different from her subjects in many ways. To produce a compelling account of life inside the leprosarium, she must negotiate the distance between herself and her subjects. Meantime, she must also consider the space between herself and her audience, and then between her audience and her subjects. These are not easy burdens. Yet, she negotiates the challenge of space and distance with grace and fortitude by relying on (of all things) candor. That is, she is open and honest about the distance that separates subject, author, and audience; and she incorporates that distance into her film by transforming it into a vital element of the production. This is why, I believe, Farrokhzad introduces the film with a 54-second voiceover in total darkness. Here, she uses the male narrator to acknowledge the distance between subject, author, and audience, to emphasizes the gravity of the subject matter, and to sensitize and prepare the viewer for the figurative, emotional, moral, political and imaginative distance they are about to travel:

There is no shortness 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 the motive of this film and the hope of its makers.

When the first image does appear - that of a single leper studying her face in the reflection of a small rectangular mirror - Farrokhzad, along with the audience, watch at first from a safe distance and only slowly move towards the woman. We never look at her directly - our gaze is mediated by the small mirror with etched flowers. The figurative distance that separates subject, author, and audience, has been actualized by the filmmaker through the cinematography in the very first scene. This is a subtle, yet crucial device.

Indeed, the first few scenes of the film are shot mostly from a reasonable distance from the subjects, with a relatively still camera, as if the photographer was frozen in fear by what she witnessed through her viewfinder. As the film progresses (in particular, when we arrive at Farrokhzad's montage dealing on medical treatment) we come much closer to the subjects, the cuts get quicker, the speed picks up. Jump cuts, quick pans, and montage abound. This change in pace and shift in distance both reflects and instigates an increasing comfort for filmmaker and audience alike. In the process, distance and "otherness" are momentarily forgotten, and subject, author, and audience come together around the table of a shared humanity. This maneuver is so successful that at the end of the film Farrokhzad must remind us (and perhaps herself) of the social distance that separates each party. In the penultimate shot, a parade of lepers walk together down a long, dirt road only to close the enormous wooden gates of the leprosarium in front of them, separating subject from author and audience in the process and reconstituting the divide that Farrokhzad had worked so tirelessly to overcome. It is a brilliant, subtle, and profound move. One that, I believe, rightly conveys the sense of tragedy that comes with certain divisions in society.

2. The Everyday

Representations of suffering regularly rely on spectacle, on the extraordinary, on the fantastic, on unspeakable images that rattle and jolt, that horrifies and disgust. Yet all too often they betray their subjects by stripping them of some basic and common humanity, of their capacity to be persons. AIDS orphans, the homeless, victims of war and violent conflict, lepers...most are rarely depicted as complex, three-dimensional persons in documentary productions. Instead, they are represented and all too often (mis)understood as no more than symbols or ideas - pale, cardboard cutouts of human-beings, the modern-day equivalent of the noble savage, or the meek that will someday inherit the Earth. The House is Black features images of spectacular suffering, of disease and contagion that many viewers will find revolting - yet an equal number of images in the film feature the residents of the leprosarium simply going about the business of daily life: combing their hair or shaving, playing volleyball or board games, flirting and gossiping, fooling around in a school classroom or playing make believe with a shovel or broom. To watch and record lepers acting like people is so obvious so as to go unnoticed by the average documentarian, so often consumed with depicting only images of extraordinary suffering and pain. Here the main subject is not leprosy but people living with leprosy, a small distinction but an important one - one that Farrokhzad never loses site of, and one that makes the film that much more successful in its aims to combat their suffering. For the only way we can empathize with people is to understand them as people - not pitiable objects or lifeless caricatures.

3. Images and Diversity

I once sat with the great Canadian documentary filmmaker George Stoney while leafing through some stills taken from The House Is Black. "What amazes me is how cold and even cruel still photography can be in cases like these," he said, "and how understanding and sympathetic the moving camera is a real revelation." Indeed, when one looks at a still image of some of the subjects of the film, one has very little options other than horror - the deformity eclipses the person completely. I wonder if Farrokhzad thought similarly. In her film, there is a radical exploitation of the many different forms of filming: close-ups brush up against wide angle shots, long takes collide with montage, jump-cuts interrupt medium shots that return again and again in different forms. In other words, Farrokhzad uses every different type of shooting style at her disposal short of double exposures and dramatic changes in speed in order to represent life in the leprosarium. This conveys, I believe, a certain dynamism and diversity in the subjects' everyday lives that allows the audience to negotiate the great distance between "us" and "them."

These directorial choices enable Farrokhzad to construct subjects far from the banal, two-dimensional cardboard cut-out models of suffering most audiences expect when they arrive to see a film about lepers (even the name itself - "lepers" - evokes a kind of gruesome horror). Farrokhzad's subjects become three-dimensional persons with complex, variegated lives; who go about the mundane business of being human; who feel pain and sorrow and happiness and confusion and anger and frustration. This shift, this transformation from gruesome, monstrous lepers to normal, everyday people is gradual over the course of the film - guided, every step of the way by Farrokhzad herself. Somewhere in the middle of the film, many viewers seem to forget they are watching a film about "lepers," so to speak. Instead, they find themselves watching a film about people living with leprosy.

(c) On Aesthetics

The filmmakers of The House is Black clearly state their objective in the opening voice-over: "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 the motive of this film and the hope of its makers." Ostensibly, this is a documentary concerning moral and political dilemmas. It looks to represent the horrid reality of people living with leprosy and then advocate for social and political reforms that may lead to improvements in the treatment of the disease. But this not a film principally directed by an activist; this is a film directed by a poet - and not just any poet, the most talked about, controversial Iranian poet in centuries. Therefore, though The House is Black may be read along political or moral lines, I believe it must be treated, first and foremost, as an artwork. As already noted, the film legitimized Farrokhzad's place as a serious artist within the critical circles of the Tehran's literati, and with good reason. Through her use of light and shadow, framing, juxtaposition, rhythm, sound, poetry, montage, characterization, imagery, metaphor, symbolism and narrative development, Farrokhzad created what at least one serious film critic (Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader) has qualified as the greatest of all Iranian films - an accolade that should not be taken lightly. This essay does not offer the time or space to deeply consider the purely aesthetic dimensions of the film. Instead, in the brief space below, I want to make some comments regarding the use of voiceover in the film - perhaps the most conspicuous and debatable of all her directorial choices.

This is a film piloted by two voices: one male and one female. The male voice introduces the film in a relatively lengthy prelude that discloses the filmmakers' objectives and sensitizes the audience to the horrors they are about to witness. The voice returns only once - after a dramatic shift to a montage of medical treatment. Here, the male voice provides objective, straightforward factual information about the nature of leprosy and its treatment:

Leprosy is chronic and contagious. Leprosy is not hereditary. Leprosy can be anywhere or everywhere. Leprosy goes with poverty. Upon attacking the body, it deepens and enlarges wrinkles, eats away the tissues, covers the nerves with a dry shield, dulls sensitivity to heat and touch, causes blindness, destroys the nasal septum, it finds its way to the liver and bone marrow, withers the fingers, it clears the way for other diseases. Leprosy is not incurable. Taking care of lepers stops the disease from spreading. Wherever lepers have been adequately cared for, the disease has vanished. When the leper is cared for early he can be treated completely. Leprosy is not incurable.

What is the effect of the male narrator's matter-of-fact voiceover? I believe the particular form and content of this voiceover (considering the unsettling images that flash before the screen) is entirely appropriate. This is a crucial moment in the film. Farrokhzad has brought us into an intimate space with her subjects. The audience is now "up close and personal" with the disease for the very first time. The voiceover is effective, then, because the cold, rational, confident gaze of the scientist separates (and somehow protects) the audience from the horror of the disease. The dry, matter-of-fact tone of the narrator's voice distracts from the extraordinary pain and suffering we know we must be witnessing. Instead, it locates us on the passionless side of science where we feel protected, even hopeful, where things make sense and we don't have to entertain dangerous questions like "How?" "What?" or "Why?"

Farrokhzad's own voiceovers are very different, in both form and content. On roughly a dozen occasions throughout the film (it is difficult to say exactly where one voiceover begins and another one ends, especially in the middle of the film in which the soundtrack is occupied almost wholly by Farrokhzad's narrative voice) Farrokhzad can be heard reciting sundry verses - some her own, others from the Old Testament - which accompany various images. It is challenging to say anything definitive about these voiceovers other than the obvious - that Farrokhzad's slow, dramatic recitations of deeply symbolic verse anchors the images in something deeper and more ineffable than it might in run-of-the-mill documentary representations. At first, they seem to emphasize the extreme pain and suffering experienced by her subjects along with the hypocrisy and irrationality of sectarian solutions to physical maladies. For Farrokhzad, - the leftist poet of the body - leprosy is a physical and social malady, not a spiritual one. In making this point, she flies in the face of centuries of thought ranging over myriad social and cultural divides that link spiritual with physical pollution - a great and important achievement in her early voiceovers.

Yet, the remainder of her voiceovers - in particular, those that occupy so much of the middle of the film - are so abstract (and sometimes self-absorbed) that they distract from the power of some of the most beautiful and powerful images in the scene. It is true that Farrokhzad's recitation of this verse is beautiful in its own right (if, for nothing else, than as an auditory experience); yet, when one takes seriously the meanings, images, and metaphors and tries to draw connections to the images on the screen - very little comes out of it, and it frustrating, rather than liberating or complementary. This, for me, is the major flaw of the film.

And yet it should come as no surprise. At this time in her career Farrokhzad was in a major transition moment in her poetic works. She had only just begun to sketch drafts of new works for Another Birth and was moving from a focus on the body and the role of the women in Iranian society, to articulating the singular, subjective, first-person voice wholly original in the history of Persian letters.

(d) Political and Philosophical Questions

This film will last, in part, because it poses vital and timeless political and philosophical questions which audiences can and or cannot entertain, depending upon their mood or sensibilities. Interpreting the film, producer and editor Ebrahim Golestan remarked that The House is Black "depicts a leprous society in which the people trust in God and seek a cure through prayer, but only science and surgery can affect a cure. Without such treatment, the social leprosy remains" (Doll 6, 2005). For Golestan, the film's greatest function was its symbolic critique of a "leprous society" - namely, the Iran between two revolutions - in which lepers and their suffering aptly represented the social suffering of everyday Iranians under the totalitarian rule of the Shah. Yet Golestan also alludes to the film's attentiveness to the nature of religion and science, particularly at the crossroads of the body. And this kind of mindfulness, to general lessons and impossible questions spark a variety of interesting questions: Can faith and science co-exist? What is the capacity of human suffering that one can endure? What are the limits of empathy? What are the limits of humanity? When do persons cease to become persons? How should societies incorporate the sick? If leprosy is curable, then why is it not cured? Why is leprosy located among the poor? What is beauty? What is youth? Why does social distance exist and how can it be mediated? But the intelligent observer does not need me to roll out a laundry list of like-minded questions: they are all there, waiting to be uncovered.


The title of the film - The House is Black - comes from the final moment in the film. Teacher and student stand at the head of a class. "Write a sentence with the word 'house' in it," demands the teacher. The student, looking more like a man than a boy with his tired face and bald head, pauses uncomfortably, blinks, and purses his lips. Huddled in rows behind him, his classmates watch closely. He looks down and looks up. Farrokhzad cuts to that great image of the tall wooden gates of the leprosarium closing in on (locking in or locking out?) a mass of lepers and then returns to the student who turns to the blackboard and writes, "The house is black." The screen turns black. Then, one last time, Farrokhzad's voice:

O overrunning river driven by the force of love, flow to us, flow to us.

Whether "the house" signifies Iran, the body, leprosy, the leprosarium, the world, the human condition, or nothing at all is beyond the point, just like any meanderings about the symbolic notion of the color "black." Instead, I find the choice Farrokhzad makes in this final voiceover very interesting. So much of Farrokhzad's film focuses on an empathic understanding of the lepers' suffering, their pain and general blight. As noted before, the films objectives are moral and political - to overcome the social stigma of leprosy, to reconstitute lepers as persons, to restore a sense of humanity to the leprosarium, to break down the distance and challenge the boundaries that have been erected between 'normal' society and people living with leprosy; so, ultimately, those battling the disease can receive help. And yet, the very last moment of the film - a very solemn and powerful moment, to be sure - is neither ethical, nor political. Farrokhzad makes no appeals; she does not beg people to care about her subjects or implore politicians to act for their benefit. Instead, she recites a prayer in the name of an autonomous, external form of love. A major diversion: a moment of pure faith - not in God, but in the power of human emotion to restore some sense of justice or beauty to our wretched earth. A sad, yet somehow beautiful conclusion to a sad, yet somehow beautiful film.

Bibliography / Endnotes

  • Doll, Susan. 2005. "Forough Farrokhzad, Filmmaker." Chicago: Facets, Inc.
  • Nichols, Bill. 1994. "Discovering Form, Inferring Meaning: New Cinemas and the Film Festival Circuit." Film Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 3 16-30.
  • Hillmann, Michael C. 1986. A Lonely Woman: Forough Farrokhzad and Her Poetry. Boulder and London: Reinner.
  • Lopate, Phillip. 1998. Totally, Tenderly, Tragically: Essays and Criticism form a Lifelong Love Affair with the Movies. New York: Anchor.
  • Monaco, James. 2000. How to Read a Film: Movies, Media, Multimedia. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Rosenthal, Alan (ed.). 1988. New Challenges for the Documentary. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Saeed-Vafa, Mehrnaz and Jonathan Rosenbaum. 2003. Abbas Kiarostami. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Copyright © 2006-2010 Firouzan Films. All rights reserved.