January 22, 2012

Lingering at the Gate: The House is Black

Khanah siyah ast ~ The House is Black ~ 1962
Written, directed and edited by Forugh Farrokhzad
In Farsi with English subtitles

Leprosy. Even the word provokes images of deformity and isolation, ghoulish and horrific. In the bible, lepers are sinners cursed with obvious defects related to their sinfulness. They were among the unclean. To be in contact with them brought uncleanliness to you and the community of faithful. 

"There is no shortage of ugliness in the world," are the opening words of this short Persian film, "The House is Black." We see a disfigured woman staring into a mirror wearing a beautiful veil that barely covers her disfigurement.

To be cured of leprosy, to be cleansed, required an act of God, both in healing and cleansing.  It is hard to say whether the 20th Century disease of remote tropic areas is the same as the biblical disease, but it was feared well into the 20th Century.  In this movie, the Islamic devotion and worship is Shi-ite, but even religion succumbs to the spirit expressed.  Compassion and loving care for lepers became a Christian practice as early as the Second Century - a tradition maintained throughout the centuries that have passed. 

In the Syriac Orthodox Church Calendar that dates back to those first centuries of Christianity, there is a Sunday dedicated to leprosy in Lent. At least once each year the lepers are remembered in churches throughout the world, but one Sunday in a year seems a paltry offering of time and prayer in the light from this film.  The makers of "The House is Black" lived twelve days among the lepers in the colony in Tabriz, Iran during the filming. Forugh Farrokhzad fell in love with two of the children, adopting them shortly after the filming.

     Here are links to three sermon/articles about lepers and the Leprosy Sunday:
     Healing and Thanksgiving http://www.angelfire.com/wi/theosis/healing.html
     The Stigma of Our Disease http://frjohbrian.blogspot.com/2010/02/stigma-of-our-disease.html
     Spiritual Leprosy http://www.icon.org.in/dt/dtmessage.icon?method=readSermon&id=84

In the 21st Century, leprosy is a nearly curable illness if diagnosed early and there is quality treatment for those whose disease has advanced.  Very few remaining lepers live in isolated colonies. However, there is still rampant a spiritual leprosy that deforms a person's character and keeps one unclean. 

"The House is Black" is a profoundly deep and penetrating look at humanity and spirituality with beautiful black and white cinematography in documentary style by cinematographer Soleiman Minasian.  Despite the careful, honoring and respectful camera work, this is a movie that probably could not be made today without hearing criticisms of exploitation. 

Forugh Farrokhzad died in a car accident in 1967, a few years after this movie was made. The cinematic gem she left behind has already influenced other Persian film-makers. Her heavy editing style was decades ahead, so the short film does not have any sense of meandering as many foriegn films of the era seemed to do.  Writing these compliments, it is hard to imagine the immediate obstacles she encountered: the film's subject as well as the film-maker's gender.

However, after seeing this movie, I could not imagine a world without this amazing film.  It is a necessary journey into a leper colony in 1960s Iran, but you get the sense it could have been filmed a hundred years ago. The profound deformities may hide the loving and faith-filled humanity presented, but not for long. It is also a necessary journey into the viewer's heart.  We are left with a sense that it is not the lepers who are lacking love, faith, and joy. Rather it is we who are lacking.

The beautiful script in the Persian language of Farsi with original poetry, facts and quotes are mixed in a smooth manner so that the humanity and the spirit is not bogged down by the medical reality. The English subtitles are subtle - sometimes too subtle and hard to read, but do not distract from the images. The poetry read by poetress and film-maker Farrokhzad, using quotes of Rumi and other observations, brings the viewer to a place they have never been before nor could be imagined. The simple image of a leper on crutches walking into toward us through the natural light in a grove of trees is one of the most beautifully filmed moments in cinema.

Listening to a woman's voice in a language not my own, reading spiritual poetry over the powerful images of human faith and love despite the deformities of a devastating disease, is a must view for all who love film and all who love humanity.

When the movie ended, I was stunned with its power and changed forever.  At times, during the 22 minutes of the film, tears rolled down my cheeks. At other scenes, I could not smile broadly enough. I felt I had met God himself in "The House is Black." The film reminds all of us that physical disease and deformity are never constraints for the goodness and love in the human soul.  God is revealed in the least of our brethren.

Toward the end of the film, there is an image of the gates of the colony closing. I found that have been lingering at those gates since.

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The House is Black page on Facebook:

View the film on-line:
OR stream below:

House is Black
22 minutes - directed by Forough Farrokhzad
(Farrukhzad, Furugh ; Gulistan, Ibrahim ; Makhmalbaf, Muhsin, Gulistan Film Co.)
Facets Video; Facets Multimedia (Chicago, Ill.) 2005

The Facets DVD includes a 19 page booklet which includes essays by Chris Marker, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Susan Doll.  It also includes two short films directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who called "The House is Black - the most important Iranian film ever made."

1. Images from the Qajar Dynasty (1993, 18 min.)
A short documentary made while the filmmaker was preparing his feature Once upon a Time, Cinema. The Qajar (aka Ghajar) family ruled Iran from 1785-1925. The film shows rare photos and early films shot at the Shah's court, along with family portraits.

2. The school blown away by the wind (1996, 8 min.)
The school for nomad children seen in the film Gabbeh, is the subject of this drama. An old man visits the classroom, and at first mistaken for an inspector, eventually is revealed as a former teacher of nomad children who has stopped by to refresh his memories of this happy time in his life.

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