A Study of The House is Black in Its Lyricism and Contradictions

During the mid 20th century, Iran had some of the most advanced film infrastructure in Asia. The United States Information Service (USIS) first introduced the medium of film to Iran through the Iran America Audio-visual Programs. The programs exhibited educational films on practical knowledge to improve Iranians’ productivity and health. Iran is an agricultural country with 80 percent of the people earning their living off the land, according to Audio Visual Communication Review (1956). Film as a mass media promised the possibility of reaching a large amount of people and educating the ones without literacy.

Naturally, a film studio system was built within Iran after the rapid spread of film consumption. The studios was making and exhibiting local films, mostly nationalist-themed, pro-regime movies and comedies. Golestan Film Workshop was created around that time. It was the first nonfiction film studio in Iran. Unlike other studios, Golestan Film Workshop was semi-independent from main sponsors, financially and ideologically. The Workshop assembled a self-sufficient group of creative and dedicated filmmakers, including Forough Farrokhzad, who later made The House is Black, recognized as the most important Iranian film and one of the most important documentary films in the world.

It was during the reign of Reza Shah, that the state paid more attention to film, especially documentaries. The government had commissioned and financed almost all the documentary projects. The Iranian auteurs, with the support of the state funding, exported important works in representation of Iran, improving the image of the nation and took over Iran’s own voice from the British and American filmmakers that produced the stereotypical narratives. However, documentaries made by those Iranian auteurs were not guaranteed to be exhibited to the mass because of the state censorship, ironically, given that the state was the one that commissioned the documentaries at the first place. The fast-paced industrialization took place in Iran around the same time; so the worship for productivity and state censorship combined gave rise to the formation of an “official documentary style”, that was used almost like a template from 1950 to 1970. The official documentary style usually adopts a wall-to-wall god-like voiceover that narrates everything that happens on the screen. One reason was the technological difficulty in recording synchronized sound of ordinary speech; the other was because of the official style’s formality, in support of the monovocalism existed in the authoritarian nature of the Iranian government.

That being said, there were several documentaries made during that period that were not pro-regime. In fact, many documentaries were socially progressive, offering a critique on the official documentary style through its realism in sound, visuals, and editing. These works, however, were frequently banned. Yet, through a more poetic, artful means, a new genre “poetic realism” was slowly formed, pioneered by Farrokhzad’s The House is Black. Poetic realist films adopted techniques from literature and exhibited experimentation in the film language, and was more likely to pass the censorship because of its indirect nature, compared to the earlier, socially progressive works that were banned.

Forough Farrokhzad’s seminal work, The House is Black, is a documentary about the lives of the lepers in the Babadaghi Leper Colony near Tabriz. It is a film that weaves together poetry, harsh social realities, and greater political despair. It pushed the language of documentaries by its innovative uses of, to give a few examples, casting characters in documentary, loosely related poetic narration, lyrical editing, and staged scenes.

In the second scene of the movie, we see a classroom of kids living in Leper Colony reading from a book. We hear the synchronized sound of them giving their thanks to the god for creating them, their parents, the nature, and their body. Yet contradictory to what we hear, we see these kids with physical deformity. Perhaps they have less to appreciate than we do, yet their innocence and gratefulness invoke the guilt within audience for taking things for granted. The second scene instantly makes us deeply root for the kids, who are the main characters, of the documentary. It also establishes the tone of the film and the weight of subject matter.

The musicality of Farrokhzad’s The House is Black has an incredible power that adds on to how the documentary affect the viewers. In the third scene, we see a singing man, who later appear in the documentary repeatedly, dancing with his feet and his hands to the rhythm of his humming. Both the music and the dance are very simplistic, but incredibly mesmerizing. This scene is positioned right after the audience root for the kids with leprosy and start to experience a taste of the agony the kids experience in this isolated space filled with darkness. The dance and the music break the heavy-weighted emotional flow, shines light on their lives: aside from agony, there’s also music and dance in Leper Colony. Farrokhzad masterfully wrote a representation that not only focuses on the disease and the pain, but also on the joy, the boredom and other shared emotions human beings all have. She is also very much aware of people’s instinct to “close eyes” on the “ugliness” of the world, stated in the beginning of The House is Black: “There is no shortage of ugliness in the world. If man closed his eyes to it, there would be even more.” In response to it, Farrokhzad mesmerizes the audience with the incredible lyricism and pacing existed in the editing and recurring scenes such as the singing man, so that no audience can turn their eyes away from the film.

The musicality throughout the film grabs people’s attention, strings images together, and alters audience’s perceptions of the world existing within the film--between somewhere familiar and somewhere totally alien to the audience. After enjoying a long shot of the singing man, the song suddenly halts at the cut to a baby turning around. Then, a close-up of a totally deformed face is presented to us, fully exposed. It’s a shocking image, for sure, especially when it’s right after the pleasant song.

Succeeding it, is a shot of a man pacing back and forth against a long, brick wall, his hand patting on the wall. We see this happening all in one long take. Off screen, Farrokhzad’s narration slowly recites each day of the week with the rhythm of the man’s hand, like a mantra, a song of life that contains repetition, despair, and isolation. Through the slow, meditative pacing, Farrokhzad reflects on the boredom and suffering of the lives of the people in Leper Colony, as well as the painful passage of time in this space.

Instead of making this documentary about ugliness and disease, Farrokhzad committed to capture a day-to-day reality of the lepers, expanding the depth of their suffering, as well as conveying a sense of empathy to the audience. The intercut shots of views outside people’s window bring the audience closer to a life they live, witnessed by objects they have in their homes. These daily objects, again, create a sense of familiarity to us. However, at the same time, we see the tenants in the window, and they suffer from leprosy. Their physicality acts as a constant reminder to us that they live a different life. The editing weaves a rhythm that constantly switches between familiarity and unfamiliarity, saying that people with leprosy are not that different from us; at the same time, they are, because they live with a pain that we never experienced. Farrokhzad’s approach takes the lepers out of the common contexts of a classroom, a laboratory, or a slideshow, and shows a new way to relate to this group of people in a more humanizing form. The approach continues its voice as Farrokhzad shows us scenes of lepers’ routines: how they are given their medication, how they take their food, how they light cigarettes…

The voice of The House is Black changes drastically after five minutes’ screen time. The soft, poetic and emotional tone of the film changes to a “wall-to-wall voice of God”, as described by Hamid Naficy in “A Social History of Iranian Cinema”. This style is the official documentary style, favored from 1950 to 1970 in Iranian documentary productions. The style dominates most Iranian documentaries because of technological difficulties of recording synchronized, ordinary speech as well as the official style’s formality. The narration is usually done by a strong, confident male voice, as we can tell in this part of The House is Black. The voice, which is Ebrahim Golestan, the founder of Golestan Film Workshop, tells us facts and science of leprosy and how people can be cured through medical assistance. The information acts as a crucial part in The House is Black, because the film is about people with leprosy after all, and an explanation should be given in order to achieve the goal of this documentary -- “to wipe out the ugliness and to relieve the victims” -- as narrated in the beginning of the film.

In spite of the necessary factual information that segment adds to The House is Black, it is inserted in the film also for it to be critiqued and reflected upon, in the context of Iranian documentary world. This segment mirrors the majority of the Iranian documentaries existed in the mid-twentieth century. The style of narrating over the footages and faces of people wipes out the opinions and voice of the subjects. It is a way to insert opinions onto people rather than letting them have their own opinions. In The House is Black, this segment seems abruptly condescending juxtaposed with other parts of the film. We see doctors helping lepers recovering from the disease, cleaning up the wounds, and checking in medical conditions. The patients appear especially dehumanized in here -- they are their disease and nothing else. And it is a result of the official documentary style, since this feeling is nowhere else to be found in this film.

The House is Black also allows us to indirectly see the institutions and ideology in Iran society during that time. The sponsor of the documentary, the Society for Assistance to Lepers, is an example of a product of industrialization in Iran. By focusing on the goods the institution has done, this segment of the film can be seen as pro-industrialization, pro-revolution; yet the film as a whole is a complex meditation on how industrialization can be dehumanizing in implicit ways.

“Not only in this poem but in each of Farrokhzad’s poems the window functions as a door to a prison than anything else.” As Elif Bezal pointed out in the essay “Forugh Farrokhzad’s Poetry and Film: The “Eye/I” of Isolation in Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House is Black”, the window shots of the scene before we go into the information segment foreshadows the imprisonment that people of disabilities face in Iran cinema. The woman, the man, the child, the boots, the pans and pots are singled out and put behind the windows -- the objects and lepers are both objectified by the society and displayed behind the window. Farrokhzad positioned the camera outside the window induces the sympathy from the audience for the lepers trapped in their room-sized loneliness and doomed isolation from the society. The term “radical humanism” is sometimes used by critics to describe Farrokhzad’s works. Yet, I feel that she has achieved humanism through a very subtle, layered, and complex language. Like poetry, there is nothing direct or aggressive about her voice. But her work affect people in a very intrinsic, emotional way.

However, it’s not true to say that The House is Black is definitely flawless. The voiceover narrated by Farrokhzad towards the middle and end parts of the film tends to occupy too much of the content of the film. They use a very abstract language, and are “sometimes self-absorbed”, as described by Jason Price in his essay “Forough Farrokhzad and The House is Black”. It’s very hard to avoid distracting from the power of the powerful images in the Leper Colony under those heavy voice overs. Undeniably, Farrokhzad is a wonderful writer and her words are very powerful, but “when one takes seriously the meanings, images, and metaphors and tries to draw connections to the images on the screen -- very little comes out of it, and it is frustrating, rather than liberating or complementary.” (Price, 4) Although we need to consider the translation from one language to another alters the flow of the language and pretty much destroys the original poetics, the amount of investment poetry requires is huge. And cinema as an art form might not flow the same way as literature. It is a very linear process when experiencing something in front of a projection screen. And too much use of literature in the documentary does affect the immersive experience cinema as the very medium can provide.

Interestingly, as Nacify finds in the essay “The Statist Documentary Cinema and Its Alternatives”, the introduction of poetic voiceover narration in Iranian documentaries “ironically encouraged discursive monovocalism and authoritarianism as opposed to the multi-vocalism that dialogue and ordinary speech would have offered.” The House is Black is not cinema verite, and the level of stylization, the auteur intervention by Farrokhzad takes away some degree of realness and impartiality from the documentary. However, Farrokhzad’s emotional, lyrical approach perfectly offers a more fluid, rewarding, and enjoyable experience.

Works Cited

The House Is Black. Dir. Forough Farrokhzad. 1963. YouTube. 21 Feb. 2013. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.

Gelabert, William F. "Development of Iran-America Audio-visual Service." Educational Technology Research and Development 4.1 (1956): 70-74. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.

Naficy, Hamid. "The Statist Documentary Cinema and Its Alternatives." The Industrializing Years, 1941–1978 A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Volume 2 (2011): 49-145. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.

Price, Jason. "Forough Farrokhzad and The House Is Black." Forough Farrokhzad and The House Is Black (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.

Bezal, Elif. "Forugh Farrokhzad’s Poetry and Film: The “Eye/I” of Isolation in Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House Is Black." Forugh Farrokhzad’s Poetry and Film: The “Eye/I” of Isolation in Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House Is Black (2009): n. pag. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.