The House is Black: a meditation on human condition, suffering and the beauty of creation in a leper colony

Forough Farrokhzad, “The House is Black” / “Khaneh siah ast” (1962)

Made about 50 years ago but still very confronting, “The House is Black” is the only film ever made by Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad. About five years after making the film, Farrokhzad died in a car accident. The documentary focusses on the daily lives of patients in a leper colony in an unflinching manner. A narrator warns that there is no shortage of ugliness in the world at the beginning of the film and as if to confirm that statement, the camera zooms in on a woman gazing at herself in her mirror, her face and in particular her eyes distorted (and one eye made blind) by her leprosy. Fast editing and close-ups enable viewers to see many, if not most, people in the leper colony Farrokhzad and her film crew visited and we come to realise that the leper colony is humanity in microcosm: the lepers go to school, they pray to God, they eat meals together, they play games and sports, they spin and weave and do other work, they sit around and get bored. Several women lepers are shown grooming themselves and applying make-up and celebrate a wedding.

The confrontational approach used in filming the lepers – the camera does zoom in very closely on the erosion leprosy causes to people’s faces, hands and feet, and the difficulties people can have moving around and handling objects – forces us to acknowledge the lepers’ humanity and their stoicism in coping with their disease and the limitations it causes. Initial shock and repugnance fade away, perhaps to be replaced by pity which itself might be replaced by admiration for the lepers’ perseverance and good humour. The disfiguration quickly becomes just another aspect of a person’s appearance and viewers start to notice the patients’ personality quirks, eccentricities and lively natures. Children lepers in particular are boisterous, playful and cheeky as they would be anyway if they were not afflicted with the disease. The film’s directness is balanced by Farrokhzad’s soft and compassionate narration, in which she quotes verses from the Qu’ran and her own poetry, mixed with dialogue between a teacher and his pupils, and a clinical monologue about leprosy, its pathology and treatment by a male voice who assures us that leprosy is curable and that it is a disease associated with poverty, implying that it is also preventable and is not due to something the sufferers brought onto themselves.

The film has a very flowing quality with a structure that seems dictated by the lepers’ activities and their schedule, however loose, for the day. The filming of the colony inmates more or less begins and ends with people in a group reading aloud, praying or following the teacher. An ingenious music soundtrack, derived from the patients’ activities with a squeaking wheelbarrow, a bouncing ball, crutches and the wedding march, has a musique concrete quality and is highly rhythmic, at times even dictating the editing and flow of the camera’s images. Farrokhzad’s own poetry readings are also very rhythmic, even hypnotic, as she alternately praises God and laments the existence of suffering, death and evil.

Leprosy was a widespread disease in Iran at the time the film was made but has since been brought under control and is now a fairly rare disease in that country. Though the context in which it was made may have long disappeared, the film is still worthwhile viewing for its compassion and empathy with its subjects, and its effortless and natural structuring in which Farrokhzad and her crew seem to have followed the lepers’ routine rather than impose their own on the patients; even the end credits, written on the school blackboard after classes have apparently finished, have to fit in with the lepers’ schedule. The film treats its subjects with dignity and respect. We in our comfortable Western lifestyles should take notice.

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