Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: The House is Black (1963)

The House is Black (1963)
Directed by: Forugh Farrokhzad.

It is easy to describe what happens in The House is Black, but impossible to describe its impact. The film was the lone one directed by Forugh Farrokhzad, a female poet in Iran, who died at the age of 32 – 4 years after making this film – in a car accident. For years, the film wasn’t well known outside of Iran, but inside Iran, it’s impact cannot be overstated. It is now seen as the start of the Iranian New Wave – and filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami cite it as a major influence on his work. Watching the short (22 minutes) documentary 50 years later, the film is truly haunting.

The film is about a leper colony in Northern Iran. Some critics have compared the film to Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), and the comparison, while only partially right, is a good one. Both Browning’s film and this one look at society’s rejects – people who have been discarded from society because of their physical appearances – yet have built a society – a family really – all of their own. The film is basically 22 minutes of footage of day-to-day life in the leper colony, with some voiceover narration – first, the dispassionate male voice that reminds the audience, more than once, that leprosy is curable if caught and treated in time. As the voice tells us this, we are treated to some tragic shots on people’s swollen faces, or faces missing noses, gnarled stubs where they once had hands and feet. The images are initially shocking, and feel the viewer with sadness – as well they should. There is no reason why these people have had to suffer like this – to be permanently scarred, disfigured, disabled.

The second voice that comes onto the soundtrack is Farrokhzad’s own, and she reads her own, beautiful poetry over these images. After the initial shock of the images, the film settles down into a more normal pace – and shows just how like “regular” society this leper colony is – old men playing board games, children joking around in school, and many, many scenes of the people praying. Despite everything that has happened to them, their faith in God remains unshaken.

The film in many ways is deceptively simple – as are the ideas behind it. As Farrokhzad says at one point “There is no shortage of ugliness in the world. If man closed his eyes to it, there would be even more”. Remarkably for a first time filmmaker, Farrokhzad’s images are potent, and the editing captures perfectly the rhythm of her words spoken on the soundtrack. The film does not exploit the people in the leper colony, but the film is more than mere sentimentality as well.

This is why I say it’s hard to describe in words the impact of watching the film. When I first heard about the film, it didn’t sound like something all that interesting to me. And I bet there are many people reading this right now who will say the same thing. But the simple power of The House is Black makes it one of the best documentaries of its time – and one that should be seen by more people outside of Iran.

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