THE HOUSE IS BLACK (1962)

  • Director: Forough Farrokhzad
  • Writer: Forough Farrokhzad
  • Accolades: 2019 BBC Top 100 Films Directed by Women (#25)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on the Criterion Channel

For a while, I found myself entirely unable to write about The House Is Black. It is only 22 minutes long, but we have featured short films on this site before with less trouble. It is also the first Iranian film we have featured on this site, though I usually find more of interest in different perspectives than I do in more of the same. It may simply be that this is a film about staring at ugliness and finding, if not beauty, nobility therein. There is more to the film, certainly, perhaps even an implied critique of the role of religion in providing supposed succor that turns out to be entirely empty, but it is fully possible to view it entirely outside of that, as just a series of images and words. Maya Deren’s short films invite the viewer to try and parse out their symbolism, but The House Is Black is not about symbols. It is purely evocative rather than specific.

The House Is Black was the only film directed by Forough Farrokhzad, perhaps the most beloved female poet in a country where poets are the next thing to saints. It consists entirely of images of a leper colony in Northern Iran, depicting the daily life of individuals suffering from leprosy, not only their treatment and care but also prayer, games, and even a wedding. This is contrasted with a soundtrack consisting mostly of Farrokhzad reading her own poetry, with the relationship to the images on screen left open to interpretation. In that deceptive simplicity lies much of the power of the film. On its initial screening in Iran, Farrokhzad found herself called to a box of dignitaries and was apparently surprised to discover the Shah and his wife, weeping at the plight of the lepers. Certainly, it is not hard to see how their sympathy was evoked. Most of the images of the film are of bodies in states of extreme decay. The wedding brings hope, but we also get images of women applying makeup to the insides of their destroyed eyelids that I will not soon forget. There are no camera tricks, no frills of any kind. Rather than using editing equipment to add the credits at the end of the film, it instead ends with a series of shots of the crew’s names, written on a blackboard.

Despite its brevity and simplicity, and not being seen by pretty much anyone outside of Iran for decades after its release (it basically took Farrokhzad being banned in her own country for her to be discovered elsewhere), The House Is Black has spawned reams of analysis. The liner notes of a recent DVD release compare it to both Freaks and Tierra Sin Pan, somehow. I also found, on the first page of Google results, a 7,000 word academic treatise on the film by an anthropology professor at UC Irvine (by contrast, this article is about 1000 words). I honestly couldn’t get through it, which is far more a comment on me than the writer, but I will say that it took me way longer to try to read that article than it did to actually watch this film.

Every couple-sentence description you’ll find of The House Is Black mentions that it is seen as a major precursor to what is called the Iranian New Wave. You may have realized by now that a lot of countries have had their own “New Waves” of filmmakers over the years, all named after the original French Version. The Iranian New Wave is unified thematically, though the way it has evolved over several decades implies that “Wave” may not be quite the right term. The majority of the Iranian films that receive any kind of interest internationally tended, at least up until very recently, to be unflinching portraits of everyday life, not so different from The House Is Black. The comparison has been drawn to Italian Neorealism. It has been suggested (including in that really long article by the UC Irvine professor) that, given the extremes of censorship involved in Iranian life over the past several decades, with even the tiniest hint of either sex or violence prohibited, that the natural evolution of film was to the “small subject,” wherein might be found larger truths. Or perhaps it is simply the long artistic tradition of art and poetry finding a new outlet. In any case, the Iranian film industry has been, even after the Revolution, by far the best known among Islamic countries in the rest of the world.

As I said, The House Is Black was the only film project completed by Farrokhzad, because she died in a car crash in 1967, at the age of 32. Several of her best known poems were only published posthumously. After the Iranian Revolution, her work as a poet centering the female perspective was banned for a decade by the government. But there is a centuries-long tradition of Iranian poetry, and her work has endured. The recent picture of her gravesite on her Wikipedia page, for example, shows the tombstone nearly covered in flowers and other tokens left by admirers. 

Perhaps it is because Farrokhzad was a poet first that her single, 22-minute film still endures, as well. Most poets view their medium as entirely on the page, but Farrokhzad clearly understood the poetic power that may lie in images, as well. Her lover and collaborator, Ebrahim Golestan, had directed a series of documentaries that had been well-received in Iran, and served as producer on The House Is Black. Perhaps it was through her associates with Golestan that Farrokhzad realized the way she could use film in her own work. Whatever the reason, the result is not only a document of a specific place and time, it is both a work that likely influenced many later Iranian films and is entirely unique in its own right.

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