For her first and, sadly, only foray into filmmaking, Forough Farrokhzad seamlessly transposed her poetic voice into a cinematic medium with The House is Black (Khaneh siah ast). At twenty-two minutes, the film offers a fleeting yet powerful glimpse of the denizens of the Bababaghi Hospice leper colony, their daily lives obliquely paired with voiceover narration ranging from citations of the Old Testament to medical descriptions of the disease which has afflicted their bodies.
Farrokhzad’s camera doesn’t merely record her subjects. Canted angles and fluid pan whips imbue a dynamism that dispels staid anthropological othering. Instead, The House is Black immerses the viewer within the quotidian minutia of the patients as they receive treatment, apply makeup, or engage in a spirited soccer game. These acts are linked with some form of supplication to a God Farrokhzad herself addresses in the narration. “I speak of the bitterness of my soul,” Farrokhzad intones, comingling dismay at the social stigmatization of the film’s figures with gratitude for flashes of grace that shade their sequestered existence.
The film risks, as any film depicting the socially disenfranchised does, aestheticizing the impoverishment besetting the colony’s patients. Indeed, the film primarily privileges Farrokhzad’s perspective, largely forgoing auditory contributions from those the director speaks on behalf of. Yet if this subversion of the traditional documentary form raises problematic questions about agency, the film remains largely successful in expressing empathy for its subjects without patronizing either them or the audience. The House is Black remains, nearly sixty years later, a succinctly precise distillation of beauty and despair coexisting in recognizably human faces.
A newly restored version of The House is Black is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.