The House Is Black by Forough Farrokhzad
One window for the moment
of realization, revelation, contemplation
Like some other masterpieces, such as Hôtel des Invalides (1951) by Georges Franju, which also deals with corporal mutilation, or Le rapport Darty (1989) by Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville, The House is Black (1963) by Forough Farrokhzad subverts and sublimates its conditions of production. Among other films, these three films are the results of official requests (public or private) and, attacking their own sponsors without the slightest hesitation, they each create a pamphlet film that varies from all social, political and aesthetic standards.
Forough Farrokhzad makes her film in the framework of a triple cultural and economic constraint: since its inception, the Golestan Film Studio has been financed by an oil company; The House is Black deals with a leper colony, Behkadeh Rādschi, at the request of the Society For Assisting Lepers, then chaired by Farah Pahlavi, third wife of the Shah2; and the poetess goes there as a single woman, losing custody of her son, in an oppressive patriarchal society where her divorce state makes her a reprobate.
Forough Farrokhzad has never made a film nor led a team before. But she transforms all of these constraints, of this collective and intimate suffering, into a blaze of intelligence, despair and love in the fire of which a unique visual poem has been forged.
Ten years earlier, on October 28, 1953 in New York, Amos Vogel, programmer of Cinema 16, organized a roundtable devoted to “Poetry and Film”.3 Among the most interesting proposals, filmmaker, writer and activist Maya Deren characterized the nature of film poetry: it consists in exploring a situation, “to probe the ramifications of the moment, and to be concerned with its depth and its qualities.”4 And, explains Maya Deren, the main means of such in-depth work is film editing: to combine two distinct phenomena that only a consciousness can reunite. The example given by the author of Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) resonates, in a disturbing way, with the windows that constellate Forough’s poems: “you stand by the window and have a sense of afternoon, which is neither the children in the street nor the women talking behind you but a curious combination of both, and that is your resultant image.”5
The House is Black is structured with such a fusion of phenomena, but in three terms rather than two.
First of all, the film fulfills its contract with great seriousness: it shows the ravages of leprosy and the daily life in the colony, it shows, through the male voice of Ebrahim Golestan, the medical information on the pathology, the clinical actions to remedy leprosy and the social injustice that determines the disease: “leprosy is a disease of the poor.”
But, secondly, the editing between the images and the female voice, that of Forough, brings the film into another dimension: the injustice of the fate striking the sick is a lever to denounce the lies of religious ideology. Forough’s sense of revolt here does not retreat before any blasphemy, any visual irony. A patient reads the Koran: “Lord, I praise you for giving me hands to work”; but the shot, in a low angle, insists on the fact that the young man only has stumps of his hands in order to hold the sacred book. Great despair runs through the film, the narrator speaks from hell, and each word points to an inevitable and precipitous death. Behind the objective description, it is the second dimension of this documentary, the most controversial: collective confinement in an intolerable human condition. It allows Iranian audiences at the time to receive The House is Black as a metaphor for Iran crushed under monarchical precepts, religious dogmas, and even those who, under the Shah regime, were allied with the capitalist powers - the very ones who financed the Golestan Film Studio. Ebrahim Golestan, sympathetic to Communist, declared publicly in 2016 that the film wanted to show how “Iranian society was then locked up and sick”.6
What combines these two dimensions, factual and pamphleteering, is not only a political analysis and a humanist empathy for the victims, but a sense of belonging of the entire film to the leper community. This is the third dimension of the film: the transformation of a documented writing into a love poem. Sister of the sick woman putting make-up on her ravaged eyes, Forough explains her own loneliness and grief: “Remember you made yourself beautiful for nothing / for a song from the faraway desert”; the concrete loneliness of the lover every evening abandoned by the beloved, which she made the subject of her many poems, and that Golestan will describe the following year in his feature film Brick and Mirror (1964). To this fusion between image and sound responds an economy of images between them which organizes a mentalization: the repetitions of shots, which come back in clusters and loops, transform the shots into musical motifs, rhymes and refrains. The entire film appears as an extension of the mental image evoked by the little boy, who is asked by the schoolteacher to write a sentence with the word “house” on the board. The boy contemplates, an image appears, a black image ostensibly staged like a nightmare: the entire population of the colony moves towards the camera, and this image, by its terrible collective force, allows the boy to finally write “The house is black” on the blackboard. Synthesis, allegory, summary, fantasy, living picture, the image reflected by the boy is an active image, an image that leads to writing. At the end of the film, the whole credits are written in the same way with white chalk on the blackboard: thus, through these purely cinematographic processes of play between the regimes of images, the film indicates itself as being born of the imagination of this boy inspired by the energy of his community. The film is in a way produced by leprosy as much as against it.
It is in this way that The House is Black is most reminiscent of another film masterpiece, just as unique, by another great writer who also lived as an outcast: Un chant d’amour (1950) by Jean Genet, a tale of the circulation of desires between prisoners and guards in a prison. Un chant d’amour intertwined three figurative regimes: realistic approximation (the prison, treated in sketches and pieces); fantasy as a catalyst of scenarios (the idyllic reverie of a prisoner); fantasy as a fetishization of a phenomenon (the monumental erotic visions of a prison guard). Like Un chant d’amour, The House is Black is the site of a thorough investigation into the differential substances and powers of the image. Cinema has a vital need for writers to elucidate what it is and what it can be.
But in contrast to Jean Genet’s exclusively psychical tale, here it is not at all concerning a subjective appropriation of the condition of the sick by a compassionate poetess. On the contrary, the film elaborates many ways to not only listen to the lepers themselves, but to autonomize them as subjects.
After a preamble spoken on a black background, the first visual initiative brings us closer, by virtue of a tracking shot, to a veiled woman with damaged eyes who is looking at herself in a mirror decorated with flowers: from her, we first see the reflection that she also sees. She controls what she gives us to see. This programmatic scene has probably referred to the know-how of Bert Haanstra’s masterpiece, of which Ebrahim Golestan had been the assistant7, Mirror of Holland (1950): entirely filmed in the water of the Dutch canals, the film, a little forgotten today but very famous at the time, gave a lesson on the plastic and symbolic importance of reflections. Contrary to Jean Cocteau’s famous statement in The Blood of a Poet (1930), “Mirrors should reflect a little before sending back images”, Mirror of Holland showed just how rich the reflections were with plastic propositions on a reality that they enriched with all the mobility of their nuances. Whether intentionally or not, the visual opening of The House is Black is included in the same lineage of trust in the reflection: by virtue of this shot, the film looks like a story of images; it finds a way to affirm that the filmed beings are the sources of their own representations and that they remain the owners of these representations; and therefore, simultaneously, that the film comes back to them, that it is made first by and for them.
In the register of other means which allow the film to autonomize the filmed beings, to affirm them as subjects of their representations: the fact of filming their reflections, that is to say the overwhelming graffiti drawn on the walls: “Heaven closed and I fell down here”; “I am going to leave. My heart is full of tears. O my brothers, I am sad tonight …” The great writings seem to be the direct source of inspiration for the poems read by Forough on the soundtrack – if they were not, they are in any case the scriptural and fraternal echo of them. Another means of autonomization is that of the treatment of bodies: most often captured in the form of fragments, these are taken at unexpected angles, in elaborate low-angle shots, whose main effect is not only to monumentalize them but also to contribute to making them overflow from the frame. We find here the manner of the “plan-éperons”/(spurs-shots) precious to S.M. Eisenstein, that is to say of the shots which seek to tear the visible surface and get out of their two-dimensionality, that seek to abolish the distance between the screen and the spectator’s gaze. In The House is Black, filmed in total low-angle shooting, the palms of hand strangely pressed against a glass pane seem to bend over our brain to penetrate it, and all the feet, hands and stumps that reach out to the camera seem to menace the surface to open a path to our heart. We can describe these shots as “haptics”, according to their learned name, but they are above all “organic”, in the sense that the framing and the panting repetitions of the shots (especially the one of the flatten palms which comes back several times) come to be imprinted on our retina with force and thus, to be grafted onto our neurons.
“You see these men: the dreadful disease has metamorphosed them into beasts; instead of nails, it put pieces of wood on their hands and feet. Strange footprints left on our roads! Who would recognize a human step there? Those people who yesterday stood upright and looked up at the sky, here they are today bent to the ground, walking on all fours, and almost changed into beasts: listen to the raucous breath that comes out of their chests; that is how they breathe. […] To these men, everything happens as if they changed their nature and lost the features of their species to turn into monsters. Their hands serve as their feet. Their knees become heels, and their ankles and toe, and if they have not been completely ravaged, they drag them miserably like the boats that pull ships. […] Let us respect the sickness that comes with holiness and pay tribute to those whose suffering has brought them to victory.”8 From Gregorio di Nissa to The Flowers of St. Francis (1950) by Roberto Rossellini, from the New Testament to The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) by Pier Paolo Pasolini, the figure of the Leper offers the opportunity of a face to face with the very condition of the human being: the most disfigured, the most excluded, the most humble and destitute being, denudes the very principle of humanity, its mortality. To accomplish face to face is to immediately get to its opposite, to the glorious body of universal goodness, of universal brotherhood. Nothing of the kind in The House is Black: the ordeal of encountering the disfiguration does not lead to a transfiguration; because in the encounter, the two parts are equivalent, one is neither healthy nor the other sick, one is neither learned nor the other ignorant, they are all immersed in the work of everyday survival. Big or small, men, women, children, residents of the colony are always active as do all other humans: spinning wool, playing, eating, dancing, learning at school ... They register in life, in this ephemeral terrible which is exactly the same as that of the narrator.
“Alas, for the day is fading,
the evening shadows are stretching.
Our being, like a cage full of birds,
is filled with moans of captivity.
And none among us knows how long he will last.
The harvest season passed,
The summer season came to an end,
and we did not find deliverance.
Like doves we cry for justice …
and there is none.
We wait for light
and darkness reigns.”
One of the most subtle montages in this regard is also the simplest: it juxtaposes the poetic words of the narrator with the ginning of the days of the week provided by a leper: “Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday ...” It is often said that one of the characteristics of Forough’s poetry is to use simple and concrete words, to remain popular; here, it contaminates with its beauty the most common and the most literally everyday words ; but the converse is also true: everyday words, “Tuesday, Wednesday ...”, to be set in litany, associated with the image of a leper who aimlessly comes and goes before empty windows, suddenly become monsters of anguish and underpin Forough’s statements about sinister fugitivity of the world:
“The universe is pregnant with inertia,
and has given birth to time.”
The House is Black belongs to the great realism of immanence, of corruptible flesh without the slightest promise of redemption, of salvation. In a museum gallery, Forough Farrokhzad’s film can be placed following the paintings by Francisco de Goya, Théodore Géricault, and Gustave Courbet. Just after The House is Black, we can display L’ordre (The Order, 1973) by Jean-Daniel Pollet, an essay documentary film on the incarceration of lepers on the island of Spinalonga off the coast of Crete. The Order is above all a meeting with Epaminondas Remoundakis, in a way the deputy of the lepers in the cinema amphitheater. One of brilliant intellectuals, Remoundakis eloquently articulates the analysis of the concentration camp experience in Spinalonga, but also the criticism of literary, photographic and cinematographic representations devoted to lepers. “Alas, until today, they have betrayed us all, none of them has given what we wanted, and what he had promised to show to the world. Finally, a deception, a photo, and the legend below that changed the promises and betrayed us. And this hurt us because some wanted to show compassion, and others wanted to show repulsion, but we didn't want people to hate us or pity us, we just needed love.”9 Thanks to Remoundakis, we understand even better the uniqueness of The House is Black: it is by facing the lack of love that Forough enters the colony and is able to symbolically sign her film with the writing of the lepers. Such are the last words of the film, against a black background: “O overrunning river driven by the force of love, flow to us, flow to us.”
We know of course that, from Behkadeh Rādschi, Forough will bring back not only a masterpiece but also a new son, Hossein Mansouri, the little boy who answers the question on “beautiful things”: “The moon, the sun, flowers, recreation.” The poetess is her own river all to herself.
In an interview with Bernardo Bertolucci, Forough defines the artist’s work as follows: “An intellectual is someone who, besides trying for the external development of life, tries for the spiritual advancement for the improvement of the moral issues. And he looks at these issues and solves them for himself.”10 The way Forough Farrokhzad solved the most difficult problem of documentary filmmaking – how to convey the experience of others with accuracy –, the way she was able to use a variety the modes of visual and sound writing to enrich the film description, the way she invented a film poem all by herself, the way she made a block of images and sounds in her own life as a woman, will never cease to inspire. The House is Black exemplifies Maya Deren’s proposal: “Poetry, to my mind, is an approach to experience”.11
- 1. Forough Farokhzad, “Window (Panjareh),” 1974, translation from Persian by Meetra A. Sofia in World Literature Today; Vol. 83, N° 4, Jul/Aug 2009, p. 15.
- 2. Cf. Mohammad Hossein Azizi, Moslem Bahadori, “A history of leprosy in Iran during the 19th and 20th centuries,” in Archives of Iran Medicine, November 2011, 14(6), 425-30. Available online.
- 3. The roundtable is rehosted in Scott MacDonald, Cinema 16: Documents Toward History of Film Society (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010), p. 200sq.
- 4. “It is a “vertical” investigation of a situation, in that it probes the ramifications of the moment, and is concerned with its qualities and its depth.” In Scott MacDonald, Cinema 16: Documents Toward History of Film Society, op. cit., p. 204.
- 5. In Scott MacDonald, Cinema 16: Documents Toward History of Film Society, op. cit., p. 209.
- 6. “Lezione di Cinema. Golestan Film Studio, tra poesia e politica. Incontro con Ebrahim Golestan condotto da Ehsan Khoshbakht e Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa,” Il Cinema Ritrovato 2016 - 28/06/2016. Minute 25.
- 7. Bert Haanstra was also the president of the jury which, during the 1964 edition of the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, awarded the Documentary Grand Prix to The House is Black. The other members of the jury were Jerzy Bossak, Walter Buhrow, Fedor Chitruk, Paul Haesaerts, Hristo Kovatschev, Walter Lasselly, Michael Lentz, Pierre Rémont, Karl Schedereit, Haro Senft, Amos Vogel, Dusan Vukotic and Karel Zeman. Thanks to Lars Henrik Gass and Cartsen Spicher for this information.
- 8. Gregorio di Nissa, De pauperibus amandis II, 342, quoted by Dionysios Stathakopoulos, “Preaching embodied Emotions. Bishops, Beggars and their Audience in Late Antiquity,” Médiévales, December 2011, Presses universitaires de Vincennes, p. 28.
- 9. In 1972, Maurice Born conducted a long interview, published in 2015: Epaminondas Remoundakis, Vies et morts d’un Crétois lépreux, translated from Greek by Maurice Born and Marianne Gabriel (Éditions Anacharsis: Toulouse, 2015).
- 10. A fragment can be referenced online.
- 11. In Scott MacDonald, Cinema 16: Documents Toward History of Film Society, op. cit., p. 204.
Originally published in I Am Independent - Beyond Mainstream: 7 Women Film Directors (2021), edited by Sung Moon, published by Jeonju International Film Festival.