The House is Black (1963) is a short film directed by Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad. It is perhaps the greatest, yet most neglected, masterpiece of Iranian cinema. A documentary about life in a leprosarium and its inhabitants, the film reveals itself to be far more than what it seems. Like much of Farrokhzad’s poetic composition, The House is Black is like an introverted and intimate window into life as an outcast. It is the only feature that was both written and directed by the poet turned filmmaker and it imposed itself as a milestone for the Iranian film industry in the 1960s. Groundbreaking in both style and content, the 22 minute long visual essay brought about a blossoming in vanguard filmmakers throughout the following decade. Farrokhzad manages to create her own language and style within cinema as much as she does with her poetry, and also keeps the same scope: to reveal the angst of living a life at the borders of social acceptance.
During the few years that preceded the realisation of The House is Black, Farrokhzad found herself increasingly involved within the Iranian cinema scene by performing relevant artistic roles at the production house owned by Ebrahim Golestan. Golestan, a pioneer of auteur cinema himself, recognized the potential lying in Farrokhzad and had the poet edit the award-winning Fire (1962). In the same year, The Iranian Society for Assistance to Patients of Leprosy commissioned Golestan to produce a documentary to promote awareness of leprosy, an illness which very little was known among Iranians at the time, and to seek funds to sustain an Iranian leper colony. The project was partly financed by the society, leaving Farrokhzad, who had been appointed to realise the feature, great artistic and creative freedom. In the fall of 1962, the poet and a crew of just five people travelled to the Bababaghi leper colony near Tabriz, in north-western Iran, and filmed the entire movie over 12 days.
“Farrokhzad broke many social and cultural taboos of her age, not without consequences”
At the time Farrokhzad begun to work on the documentary, she had already published three collections of poetry, which showcased her raw talent and elected her as an undisputable figure of modern Iranian literature. Her poetry is tormented and intimate, and bears the signs of a troubled life. A deep sense of guilt – perhaps on account of having abandoned her only child and husband in order to pursue her artistic career – permeates Farrokhzad’s work, along with an atmosphere of gloomy restlessness. The awareness of her status as a woman in her time and place had a powerful influence on her work. For the very first time in a Muslim country like Iran, a woman was lending her voice to represent reality and life as envisioned by the female counterpart.
Farrokhzad “suffered from what may be called double alienation”, by being both a Muslim female and an artist during the critical years when political reforms were contributing to an already tense atmosphere. As a true feminist writer, Farrokhzad broke many social and cultural taboos of her age, not without consequences. The social stigma which emerged around her work and personal life is palpable in each poem verse and documentary shot. This is why the film produces such an honest portrayal of the life at the leprosarium, and above all of its inhabitants. Farrokhzad was well aware of what it meant to be a pariah, to be seen as a corrupt creature, and to simply be different, which allowed her to build a trustworthy relationship with the lepers and let them open up to her.
Numerous close-up shots sprinkled throughout the film force viewers to effectively see the harsh reality of leprosy. Disfigured faces look straight into the camera and stare at the spectator. Despite the cruelty of these compelling images, it is hard to look away. The slant of these shots is precisely that of revealing the lepers to be, not merely repellent creatures, but human beings. Farrokhzad’s close-ups of the lepers’ deformed faces and bodies are meant to restore their dignity and humanity. To further highlight the importance of close-up shots in The House is Black, it is impossible not to take into account one of the film’s first shots; a close-up. Arguably the most powerful image of the whole film, the opening sequence starts with a medium shot of a semi-covered woman staring at herself in a decorated mirror.
The camera, angled in such a way that the viewer can look at the woman through the mirror, slowly zooms in. At the beginning a veil covers her face, but not the eyes; however, as the image gets closer, the viewer is able to realise that the woman is in fact affected by leprosy and her face has been ravaged by the disease. If on the one hand, spectators follow and take part in the woman’s actions, on the other hand the “woman is the symbol of ‘man’ who sees his life in a mirror – in any mirror” as stated by Farrokhzad in an interview about the film. She believes everyone to be “in one way or another imprisoned in [their] respective lives with nowhere to escape”.
Understandably, her less fortunate condition as social outcast allowed her to dig into the depths of life and love, making her aware of what a precarious balance rules not only the lives of lepers, but of every individual. As a result of this, Farrokhzad forces the audience’s gaze into a series of compelling close-ups and details of the lepers’ wrecked bodies, to become familiar with, and ultimately accept them. Farrokhzad wants to let people acknowledge that despite her social stigma, she is a human being as well.
Mirrors thus appear to be an important symbolic image in both Farrokhzad’s poetry and cinema. In this short excerpt from Green Delusion, it is possible to understand how mirrors played a central role in the poet’s process of self-identification.
“I wept all day to my mirror,
spring had given my window away
to the green delusion of trees,
how cramped I was in my cocoon alone, my crown of paper mildewed
and polluting the air of
that sunless realm.”
Farrokhzad looks in the mirror, as the woman in the film, and is finally able to visualise her own leprosy, the burden she has carried throughout her whole life. Her journey through the Bababaghi colony allowed the poet to come to terms with her own status, as the lepers’ condition mirrors her own within Iranian society.
Shirin Akhondi studied Persian and Development Studies at SOAS where she pursued areas of interest such as literature, cinema and politics. She also writes for several magazines.