Sunday, July 12, 2015

The House is Black (1963)

Director: Forugh Farrokhzad
Writer: Forugh Farrokhzad
DP: Soleiman Minasian
Editor: Forugh Farrokhzad
Producer: Forugh Farrokhzad
Starring: Residents of Behkadeh Raji, Forugh Farrokhzad, Ebrahim Golestan, Hossein Mansouri
Length: 21 min.

Forugh Farrokhzad's The House is Black opens with this statement: "There is no shortage of ugliness in the world."  It then explains that no ugliness should be ignored, because otherwise the victims of ugliness will never be relieved of their plight.

The film documents Behkadeh Raji, an Iranian leper colony built in the 1960s. The colony exists as a self-contained community populated both by those afflicted with leprosy and their caretakers. The film fulfills its stated role as a documentary for the sake of spreading awareness. It succinctly summarizes the symptoms of leprosy, explains that it is not hereditary, that it is associated with poverty, and that it is not incurable. Most importantly, it informs us that in any place where sufferers of leprosy have consistently received the treatment they need, the disease has been eradicated. This information is relayed to us through narration over footage of people from the colony receiving treatment. We note the variety of the treatments tailored to the specific ailments each individual has been forced to endure because of leprosy.

This part of the film is very brief. The rest of the film (the majority of the film, actually) does not directly relay information to the audience. Rather, we see footage of the residents of Behkadeh Raji going about their daily lives, set alongside shots of animals and other natural forms. We hear narration contemplating God's beneficence to humanity, which at first seems at odds with the images of suffering we see; why thank God for his creation when it contains such suffering? The narrator also comments briefly on the freedom of birds, another concept that intuitively has a cruel irony to it.

However, the film avoids irony. Farrokhzad doesn't frame the community of Behkadeh Raji in a way that sets it in opposition to the words of thanks and praise of freedom, and the narration also contains words of accepting transience. The film promised to show ugliness and set out to do that, but it's still impeccably shot, full of graceful camera movements and a number of stylized compositions. She shows us the living community that exists there, one with games, music, conversation, industry, and children at play. Farrokhzad will cut repeatedly between one character's motion and multiple quick shots of other characters in their homes. In one scene, through her editing of ambient sounds and images of people engaging in all of these activities, Farrokhzad creates a rhythm that evokes a sense of motion continuing through time, a sense that all the things we see happening in Behkadeh Raji are things that happen with frequency and purpose.

Eventually we understand the awed tone of the narration; the people suffering with leprosy have ugliness in their lives, and more than enough awareness of that ugliness. So, they choose to exalt beauty, and through that exaltation their community and life therein takes shape. It's an expansion of the film's opening statement that ugliness will not change unless we make ourselves aware of it.  When we are aware of it, we must let that be motivation to pursue beauty.

We see a room of schoolchildren asked to name beautiful things, and one child answers: "The moon, the sun, flowers, playtime."  When asked to name ugly things, another child answers: "Hand.  Foot.  Head."  All the children laugh at the answer to the second question.  They understand the affliction brought on them by ugliness; how can they not?  But we see how they work past that, and by expanding awareness, the film hopes to encourage its viewers to do the same.  Farrokhzad only made one film in her life, but it was one that managed to work perfectly as synecdoche - as a film whose core narrative can refer to all the ugliness in the world through implication - while remaining wholly human, never objectifying or mystifying its subjects.

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