This piece was originally posted in 2009 for Allan Fish’s 1960s countdown. It is being re-posted tonight, along with an embedded video of the short film itself, to encourage readers who haven’t seen or even heard of the film before to watch one of the cinema’s great masterpieces. Please vote for it in this week’s “Alternate Oscars” ballot for 1963. The headline and this intro are mine. – Joel Bocko (a/k/a MovieMan0283)
by Allan Fish
(Iran 1963 22m) DVD1
Aka. Khaneh siah ast
I have become the pelican of the desert
p Forough Farrokhzad d/w Forough Farrokhzad
When discussing the great women directors of world cinema, Forough Farrokhzad is not generally one of the first names to be produced from the hat. Those with a sense of history may note Lois Weber, Dorothy Arzner, even one-time actresses Ida Lupino and Mai Zetterling. There was Larisa Shepitko, Julia Solntseva and Agnès Varda (though all three of those had arguably more famous director husbands) and then later we had Jane Campion, Lina Wertmuller, Catherine Breillat, Agnès Jaoui, Claire Denis, Sofia Coppola and, most precociously and most appropriately of all given the selection, there’s Samira Makhmalbaf, of whom much may still come. Farrokhzad had one thing in common with Shepitko, and a tragic connection it was; they both died in car crashes before their time. Farrokhzad even more so, she was only 32 when she perished. She made The House is Black inside of a fortnight when she was 27. She was a poet and a great one, arguably the greatest Iranian poet of the 20th century and one of the greatest of the century full stop. It may be her only film, but it’s enough to name her a great filmmaker.
The House is Black – which gets its title from a sentence chalked on a blackboard in the final scene – details the day to day life in a leper colony in Iran in the then present day. It’s not a pretty film, indeed it’s unpretty from the outset. Over a black screen the narrated words tell us “there is no shortage of ugliness in the 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 victims’ is the motive of this film and the hope of its makers.” And then, the first searing image we see is of the badly disfigured face of a woman, shown in stark close-up. It’s an image to move all but the coldest of hearts.
The whole thing is shot in such matter-of-fact detail that one could swear the director was an old hand. Shots of withered limbs, disfigured features, squinting eyes, scars and diseased tissue dominate, and there are shots of children inside the camp, some not showing symptoms which may make some wonder why they are still there. Yet for all the poverty, and it’s that which lets leprosy thrive even now, there’s love here amongst the despair. It’s painful viewing, but it’s necessary viewing, a film to at once shake us from our apathetic complacency and make us ashamed. In showing us the makers’ and the protagonists’ humanity, it acts as a call to our own. There’s one sequence in a school classroom that must be picked out. One child is asked to name beautiful things in the world, and replies “the sun, the moon, flowers and playtime.” We smile. Then another is asked to name the ugly things in the world and he can only list the parts of the body. It’s a choking moment, and as poetic in its simplicity as anything the master poet ever wrote.
Visually the film is undoubtedly stark, shot in an almost cinema vérité style reminiscent of the later exposes of Frederick Wiseman. In tone, however, it belongs in the same breath as the factual short masterpieces of Alain Resnais which were surely an influence. Bigger still, however, was the influence on Iranian cinema, and on Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami in particular. They, more than any other directors, are credited with putting Iranian cinema on the map, yet I doubt either would suggest any of their works, for all their undoubted merits, were as powerful as Farrokhzad’s piece. Jonathan Rosenbaum is one of many critics to wax lyrical about it, and he ne’er wrote more accurately than when describing The House is Black as “spiritual, unflinching and beautiful in ways that have no apparent western counterparts; to my eyes and ears, it registers like a prayer.” The poetry may be Islamic, but the humanism is universal, and its power equally so. And as long as leprosy, that disease that can, as one person says in the film, appear “anywhere and everywhere” exists, so should this film. Commenting on the film in the The Times in London, Samira Makhmalbaf said that it was “one of the true masterpieces.” And then some, Samira. And then some.