by Arta Barzanji, edited by Forrest Cardamenis
In his essay “The Queen of Sheba,”1 Iranian critic Hesam Amiri recounts the reactions that The House Is Black (1963) received from reviewers upon its release. The common thread among all of the predominantly negative reviews was that the film was deemed “too feminine” or (contradicting the prior claim) that it was not actually directed by Forough Farrokhzad, but by her partner, the prominent filmmaker and writer Ebrahim Golestan. Farrokhzad (often simply referred to by her first name, “Forough” among Farsi speakers), is the modern Iranian intellectual whose private life has been most scrutinized. Not by accident, she’s also one of only a handful of prominent contemporary Iranian intellectuals who was a woman. These scrutinies were always centered, in one way or another, on Forough’s “body”: who was she sleeping with when she was alive, and who washed her bare body when she was dead?2
It should come as no surprise that Forough’s one and only film as a director (she was the editor of Golestan’s striking documentary A Fire in 1961 and had a cameo in his monumental 1965 narrative feature debut, The Brick and the Mirror) is largely about bodies, flesh, and their corruption. The leprous’ body is corrupted, rendering it an outcast from society. She is quarantined in a leper colony with those who share her plight. The film represents the bodies of its subjects with close-ups of hands praying, playing, combing, or caressing; of feet walking, dancing, or running; and of mouths talking, kissing, singing, or smiling. Some of the images are recurring; some we only see once. Some are used for mildly comedic effects, like that of the children teasing their classmates, while some have more somber undertones, like the woman who is putting makeup on her eyes—eyes that are starting to resemble empty holes in her head. Some show the affected engaging in familiar activities, like the children playing with the ball, while others show them in more passive, pedestrian moments like the old man walking back and forth by a wall. Some of the leprous seem to be happy, some sad; some are praying, some dancing; some are playing, some fighting. The film represents their bodies by capturing them not as vile, or as fantastic spectacles, sights or freaks, nor by mythicizing or revering them. Rather, it captures them by showing them in their material surroundings—partaking in their activities, in moments of mundane boredom or joy, in a classroom or a wedding ceremony. In other words, the bodies are personalized when shown in an array of activities (or lack thereof), in the context of the concrete material conditions of the leper colony.
It’s worthwhile to compare the bodies of The House to the bodies of the other films that were being made at the time, the bodies of Filmfarsi. “Filmfarsi” is the umbrella term that describes low-brow, cheaply and poorly made popular pre-Revolution Iranian films which were filled with dance and songs, but weren’t considered musicals per se. The male hero was almost always poor, traditional, family-oriented, handsome, and physically imposing. His would-be love interest was more often than not a rich, spoiled, naive and rather sensual girl, who would fall for the hero due to his chivalry and code of honor. Thus, the body (or the body that “mattered”), up to that point in Iranian cinema, was either that of the strong macho man or the sexy voluptuous woman. Exaggerated, idealized, sexualized: either strictly the milieu of heterosexual sex that led to marriage (and had the side product of class reconciliation, merely through a newly gained mutual understanding) or the domain of close-quarter violence—the direct violence of knives and blades, not mediated through a projectile or a bullet, helmed directly by the hero’s hand to the body of his adversary, cutting the flesh open.
The horror and the shock of the 1963 Iranian audiences accustomed to these images—and to these bodies—upon their first contact with The House and its radically different images and bodies would have been immense. The holes penetrated with blades, and the wounds cut open with knives in Filmfarsi had given way to holes instead of eyes, and open wounds instead of mouths. The bodies of pop culture figures like Googoosh and Fardin had been replaced by the residents of a rural leper colony. The images were lit with natural light, the camera shook from time to time, the editing patterns were unfamiliar, and there was no discernible story or moral to it. It was an object wholly unknown to the Iranian public, and too earnest even for the critics to handle.
Throughout The House, we hear Forough’s voice and we see the leprous bodies. Her voiceover doesn’t convey information; rather, it recites poetic passages that are sometimes loosely connected to what is seen on the screen and other times seem to describe the condition of the subjects. But often, more than anything, they come across as the ruminations of the leprous themselves, set to poetry by Forough. One verse reads: “I wish I had wings like a bird, to fly far away from this cruel soil.” Another: “leave me before I go where there is no returning from: the land of absolute darkness.” By replacing the body with the sound, the visual with the aural, the film relates to the body of its creator, Forough: a public female figure whose private life was, and still very much is, scrutinized by men. As Amiri contends, Forough’s voice was the first disembodied female voice in an Iranian film. The opposite, of course, was common practice: women were bodies without voices. For Forough, however, the point wasn’t to just show bodies, not even to show just bodies, but to show bodies justly.
Although leaving her own body out of the film wasn’t politically motivated, it remains political insofar as her voice remains the driving force of the film. Forough doesn’t tell us how bad the conditions of these people are, that they are poor and don’t receive the treatment that they would in a big city, or that they suffer pains most of us can’t imagine. She doesn’t plead with us to affect great change to society so all the underprivileged, the leprous of the film included, would be better cared for, nor does she ask us for small change, for charity or anything of the sort. Her voice—inherently political as the first disembodied female voice in an Iranian film and dialectical in its relation with the bodies present and the bodies missing—recites poetry that is existential at its core, affecting in the most intimate sense, and political, not in an immediate, but a latent sense.
Critics have often only read the film, instead of seeing it. They’ve read the small (leper) society of the film as an allegory of the Iranain society at large3, encompassing the institutions of religion, education, marriage, as well as the individuals within those institutions. They’ve read the film as a critique of religion, “the opium of the masses,” that takes advantage of the ignorance and desperation of the poor and illiterate. Yet, The House is neither a critique in such simplistic terms nor is it particularly of interest to me to read it in that way. It’s not that those readings are entirely invalid; rather, that they risk degrading the sensory experience of truly seeing the film, by reducing it to a mere allegory. An often ignored but significant piece of historical context, however, of which Amiri reminds us, is that the film was released when the “White Revolution” (in very simplified terms: surface-level reforms aimed at Westernizing Iran) was being enforced. The house, meanwhile, was and remained black: “We await light, and yet we live in darkness” says Forough as a man walks towards the camera until his body fills the frame, causing it to go black.
Filming the underprivileged requires tremendous tactfulness and integrity on the part of the filmmaker. Bunuel did it in Land Without Bread (1933) by parodying the genre (Chris Marker calls The House the “Land Without Bread of Iran” in his 1967 tribute to Forough4), but having the courage to tackle it sincerely is rare. When it exists, it often yields disastrous results about which Carlos Mayolo and Luis Ospina’s also similarly parodic mockumentary, The Vampires of Poverty (1977) warned us: “Why do they always film the misery, the poverty?” “They’re filming the truth.” “What truth? It’s just shit.” What sets The House apart from that “shit,” is that it’s not necessarily about the “plight of the underprivileged.” That is also part of it, without a doubt, but, much like Pedro Costa’s In Vanda’s Room, it’s about the totality of the existence of these people. It doesn’t try to ignore or romanticize their plight or assume a pretense of hopefulness. In fact, the narration eventually breaks from its poeticism to deliver scientific facts about leprosy. The film begins with a black screen and a narrator (the male voice that will deliver the aforementioned scientific facts later) uttering the following: “There is no shortage of ugliness in the world. But if man closed his eyes to it, there would be even more. […] On this screen will appear an image of ugliness, a vision of a pain that no caring human should ignore.” The ethical strength of these assertions and the plainness with which they are delivered is astounding. The film doesn’t try to sugarcoat the plight of the leprous and claim to see some mystical beauty in their predicament, as a more contemporary sensibility with a craving for “political correctness” might expect. It’s a beautiful, lyrical work, yes, but it’s quite matter-of-fact at the same time. If the light has a painterly quality in Costa’s Vanda, here the words have a poetic quality to them. Yet both films are firmly rooted in the material conditions of their subjects, and in the case of The House, that means primarily the bodies of the leprous. And that is where the film draws its moral force and unparalleled beauty from. It approaches its sensitive subject matter with tactfulness, respect, clarity, science, poetry, and absolute sincerity, and manages to create a thoroughly respectful portrait of the residents of the leper colony, their lives, and emotions. The House is Black is a film concerning bodies: those of its subjects, the leprous; that of its creator, through its absence; the bodies of the audience, and the impact of the film on them; and the idea/ideal of “body” in a cinematographic-societal context.
1: Amiri, Hesam. “The Queen of Sheba.” Vitascope. October 17, 2019.
2: “Masud Kimiai: I Washed Forough’s Corpse/Pouran Farrokhzad: Kimiai Was Nowhere Near Forough’s Body.” FardaNews. June 1, 2014.
3: Jahed, Parviz. “‘The House is Black,’ Before and After the Death of Forough Farrokhzad,” BBC Persian. February 14, 2015.
4: Marker, Chris. Translated by Rym Quartsi. “Chris Marker on Forough Farrokhzad,” Notes on Cinematograph. May 19, 2016.