Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The House is Black (Forough Farrokhzad, 1963)

Forough Farrokhzad, generally regarded as the greatest Persian poet of the 20th century, made her first film in 1963. It proved her last; she died four years later. Yet the movie in question, a 22-minute documentary made to increase awareness of leprosy in Iran, prefigures not only the essay film but seemingly the whole of the Iranian New Wave. "There is no shortage of ugliness in the world," says the male narrator who opens the film before Farrokhzad takes over the reading. "If man closed his eyes to it, there would be even more."

The House is Black certainly contains "ugliness," featuring shots of diseased colony residents in various states of physical decay, but Farrokhzad never turns away from these people. Just as important, she does not look upon them pityingly, either. The film, in black-and-white with bright frames from the desert sun, uses subtitles without outlines, making reading them practically impossible. Throughout the film, she reads from the Old Testament, the Koran and her own poetry, the words so haunting, grim yet hopeful that I downloaded a copy of the subtitles to read along with the YouTube video. However, I could have gotten by without them: this is a film told with such simple visual grace it's no wonder one of the world's great modern art movements practically sprang out of it.

Farrokhzad breaks the documentary feel of the film almost immediately, using a montage technique of repeated shots and close-ups of objects in addition to the people of the colony. The stark realism of it all reflects the style of Iranian cinema, but so do the blatantly "cinematized" edits. In basic but pure form, poetry and realism mingle.

Furthermore, by repeating shots of people, the director removes the initially repellent nature of the lepers' afflictions. At first glance, we might recoil at the man whose skin has wrinkled and loosened to the point that he looks as if wearing a papier-mâché mask, but through seeing him again and again amid new and other recycled shots, he becomes more natural, more expected.

By opening with poetic and Biblical thoughts first before going over a medical, documentarian explanation of the disease and how it afflicts people, Farrokhzad messes with convetion and encourages participation and study of these people instead of simply accepting this as a clinical study for classrooms. Philosophical thoughts might make for a heady movie instead of a blunt one, but the director knows emotion and peers into the pan-religious spiritual element that binds these people, unearthing human bonds in their noblest forms.

At first, the prayer she films children reciting, seems ironic: they thank God for all their body parts that allow them to interact with the world, body parts literally crumbling and imploding on their faces, hands and feet. Farrokhzad even asks "Who is this in hell praising you, O Lord?" wondering how they can be grateful for things that will fall off them before long. Later in the film, a teacher asks a student, "Why should we thank God for having a father and mother? You answer." The boy hesitates slightly and bashfully replies, "I don't know. I have neither."

However, Farrokhzad soon demonstrates the power of gratitude and some belief in shaping positive lives for those stuck in this colony. We see a genuine community, with children rough-housing, adults laughing and chatting and people largely working in harmony to make a pleasant life out of a bad situation. There's even a wedding between lepers, an event that brings out everyone in town—or Farrokhzad makes to look like everyone in town through montage, anyway—in congratulations and celebration.

In the medical segment of the film, the official, male voice notes that leprosy is not incurable, and that proper care can not only prevent the spread of the disease but even heal those suffering from it. With her poetic eye and voice, Farrokhzad frames the colony as a microcosm for human interaction as a web of emotional and physical support, capturing the ugliness and beauty of the human condition through a neglected group suffering from an arcane disease eradicated in so many other areas of the world. By turning her lens to these people, Farrokhzad finds not only proof of how far we still have to come to make this a better, healthier world but a model for a more ethical one too.

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