Directed by: Forough Farrokhzad
Cast: Forugh Farrokhzad, Ebrahim Golestan, Hossein Mansouri
Run Time: 22 Minutes
Availability: Not Streaming or Available for Digital Rental/Download. Available on DVD from Facets Home Video
Just because a piece of art is made with nobel intentions, that doesn’t inherently make the product good. Take the song “We Are the World.” The whole existence of it was to raise money for starving children in Africa, certainly a good cause. However, the song has not been well remembered over the years, and is thought of as a joke. This weeks featured film “The House is Black,” the 1962 documentary short from Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad, is in a similar situation. It would be disingenuous to say the film is of the same quality as “We Are the World,” I’m just using it for comparison purposes. Farrokhzad’s film about a leper colony in Iran is a film with great technical ability, and made for the purpose of humanizing lepers, a wonderful cause. Yet, the poetic voice over drags the film down and makes it come across as an experiment for the director to showcase her poetry, instead of telling a compelling a story about these people.
“There is no shortage of ugliness in this world. If man closed his eyes to it, there would be even more..On this screen will appear an image of ugliness, a vision of pain no caring human being should ignore. To wipe out this ugliness and to relieve the victim is the motive of the film and the hope of its filmmakers. This opening text perfectly summarizes what the filmmakers want to accomplish. As mentioned earlier, leprosy is the ugliness they speak of. The documentary focuses on this colony, and their daily struggles to live. We see these people eat, pray to their God, receive medical treatment, go to school, and even prepare for a marriage ceremony.
Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum said in his review of the film it “seamlessly adapts the techniques of poetry to its framing, editing, sound and narration.” I have to agree with Mr. Rosenbaum as, without a doubt, the strengths of the film lie in its technicality. The images that cinematographer Soleiman Minasia captures will no doubt stick with you. He captures the entire spectrum of leprosy, and to see how the disease affects these people is very heartbreaking. Combine that with the tight and concise editing from Farrokhzad, and you have a very well-made film. Though it runs only 22 minutes, the images pack a powerful emotional punch.
Yet for as powerful as the images are, the voiceover drags the film down. Here is my problem with it. The whole point of the film is to humanize the lepers, yet at no point in the film do they address the camera, and tell the viewr what it is like to have the disease. That would make the film more powerful, and it’s the kind of story I would want to watch. Leprosy does not affect the vocal chords, so this could be done. I understand this is not a BBC documentary on leprosy. However, what is presented just does not work for me.
I mentioned earlier that Farrokhzad was a poet. She is actually one of the most important and influential poets from the Middle East. On its own merits, the voiceover she provides is very creative, and the prose flows wonderfully. Her skill as poet is evident and without question. However, it doesn’t compliment the film well in my opinion. A line such as “The universe is pregnant with inertia and has given birth to time” sounds like something Patti Smith would read on stage at CBGBs. I like Patti Smith a lot so that is not meant as an attack. The point I am trying to make is that I would rather listen to the lepers themselves, than hear Patti Smith’s artistic take on the matter.
As a whole, the film doesn’t quite gel together. However, I have to admire and appreciate what it tried to do. Not only was it an attempt to humanize lepers, but it also tried to educate as well. There is a scene where a male voiceover takes over, and explains to the audience what leprosy is. This person explains the characteristic of the disease, but most importantly, it can be treated. I was reminded of the AIDS scare of the ‘80s, and how that disease was viewed. I wonder if leprosy is viewed in the same way? It’s also a very important film in Iranian cinema. It’s said to have inspired the Iranian New Wave, and Contemporary Iranian filmmakers such as Abbas Kirarostami look to it as an inspiration. Despite it’s main flaw, “The House is Black” is an important film in the history of Iranian cinema, and is still worth a watch for its significance.