The House Is Black

The House Is Black ★★★★★

This 20-minute documentary-short about an Iranian leper colony contains more elegance, grace, poetry, beauty, and insight into the human condition than 99% of the films released nowadays with 10 times that time. The House is Black (available to view here) was the only film directed by the Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad, a legendary figure in feminist literature who died in a car accident in 1967, thus cutting her career tragically short. The proof she leaves behind of her total and complete understanding of cinema is unshakeable. I dare you to watch this and not come out fully tuned-in to life.

It starts with a subversive gesture. An initially scary zoom-in to a female leper, whose hijab covers her head and the lower half of her face. This image of deformity jolts us out of our seats; Farrokhzad, by starting with this shock-image, gets us to ponder our definition of the word "beautiful" and "ugly." She makes us take a moment out of our daily lives to reflect upon our reaction—"Why do I shudder when I see this woman?". Later, we become used to the faces—"deformed" in the physical and technical sense, yes, but the soul, the person behind that face, is not different from the friends and family and citizens you see ambling down a busy street in Greenwich Village or Tokyo, Japan or Pasadena, California. Once we become one with this pure space, however, we are once again jolted out into our cold and cruel reality. A truck-speed dolly-out. The lepers follow the camera, and the gate is closed on them. "LEPER HOUSE" it reads. Forugh has proven this is a meaningless label; but it is a label, nonetheless. We live in a society of labels. We leave the house, and therefore we leave the safety and security of being one among these lepers. We finish the movie, into the dark despair of a world that judges these humans solely on their features, ostracizing them instead of understanding. A school-teacher asks one of the leprosy-addled students to write a sentence using the word "house." The ominous sentence? "The house is black."

Yet a film like The House is Black is so moving because it sticks in our consciousness long after the images have stopped physically flickering. For 20 minutes, we come to understand them. Afterwards, we never stop understanding them. Because the person helping us understand is so passion-driven, because our teacher is so penetrative in her unceasingly artistic gaze, our perceptions are forever shaken.

Forugh Farrokhzad is both idealistic in her noble humanist intentions and realistic in her precise knowledge of non-lepers, of "normal" humans. She asks us to ponder why we consider "normal" the way we do. Is it because it makes us comfortable whenever we see someone who doesn't fit this definition? In our pity-parties, should we really be feeling sorry for the person (which Farrokhzad "argues" we shouldn't; that is not enough) or should we really be focusing our eye on the bigger-picture, on the world that lets these definitions happen?

Forugh Farrokhzad, may you rest in peace, and may everyone see your wonderful, beautiful contribution to the ongoing history of cinema. In 20 minutes, you get us to think more about our society than 200 people given 10 times the time. The canon of films will never be settled on in the foreseeable future. Yet we can (and must) add films like The House is Black to the repertoire in order to make the Canon more varied, dynamic, multi-angled, multi-faceted, complex, diverse.