Joobin Bekhrad, The Guardian: In the autumn of 1962, the celebrated Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad made what would be her first and last film. Regarded as a precursor to the Iranian new wave and now considered a classic, The House Is Black is a documentary about the members of a leper colony near the city of Tabriz in northwest Iran. Despite having been filmed nearly 60 years ago, and focusing on a small group of people suffering from a particular condition, it has found new relevance in the age of the coronavirus pandemic, having much to say not only about the current situation in Iran but also to those in self-isolation and/or suffering, regardless of location.
Farrokhzad’s short film is anything but an easy watch. Ebrahim Golestan, its producer (who was in a secret relationship with Farrokhzad at the time) states this explicitly at the start. “On this screen,” he says, “will appear an image of ugliness, a vision of pain no caring human being should ignore.” This echoes the sentiments of the poet Sa’di of Shiraz, who in the 13th century famously declared: “You who are indifferent to the misery of others cannot be called a human being.”
Golestan’s “ugliness”, however, turns out to be something of a euphemism. While some of Farrokhzad’s subjects are being treated for leprosy at an early stage, others haven’t been as fortunate. In the first scene, a girl regards what is exposed of her mutilated face in a mirror. Elsewhere a blind, noseless man handles a cigarette with mere stubs for fingers. Farrokhzad does not, however, treat any of them as anomalies or grotesques but as people; and her empathy is accentuated by her passionate readings of her poetry. “Let us listen to the soul,” she says, “who sings in the remote desert, the one who sighs and stretches his hands out, saying, ‘Alas, my wounds have numbed my spirit.’”
In his preface, Golestan says that the motive and hope of the film is “to wipe out this ugliness and relieve the victims”; but The House Is Black is a little more complex than that. According to Nasrin Rahimieh, professor of comparative literature at the University of California, Farrokhzad told Bernardo Bertolucci that “she saw the leper colony as an example or a model of a world imprisoned by its illnesses, difficulties, and poverty”. Rahimieh suggests that “life in the leper colony is a metaphor for life in general”. Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University, and Roxanne Varzi, a professor of anthropology and film at the University of California, suggest, respectively, that the film reflects the “brutalised history” of Iran, and serves as a metaphor for “the Shah’s oppressive social policies and a critique of the practice of religion at the time”.
The House Is Black has taken on even more meaning in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. For one, it can make those self-isolating appreciate what they have. Our pandemic will pass, but for the quarantined patients in the film, especially those with advanced leprosy, illness and isolation from the rest of society are facts of life. They have no recovery to look forward to, passing out their days in a slow decay. “I am poured out like water … as those who have long been dead,” Farrokhzad says in her voiceover. “On my eyelids is the shadow of death.”
That said, there is some light in the film: children giggle at school and while playing football, dealing with the situation as best they can, while other patients are shown making merry at a wedding. The film’s contrasting of scenes in a hospital in which Golestan discusses the treatment of leprosy, with those of fatalistic worshippers submitting to the will of God in a mosque, says volumes about the conflicting attitudes of and towards science and religion in Iran.
On that note, the “house” in the film (ie, the colony) can certainly stand as a metaphor for coronavirus-era Iran: a pariah nation battling a pandemic under crippling US sanctions costing ordinary Iranians their lives at an alarming rate. In perhaps the film’s most harrowing scene, a schoolboy is asked to write a sentence on the blackboard with the word “house”. He thinks to himself before scrawling with his damaged fingers: “The house is black.”