The House is Black

March 4, 2008

With the talk of poetry, and the Economist’s obituary of Baba Amte this week, I thought I’d write on a poet’s movie. There aren’t many. In “The House Is Black,” the poet Forough Farrokhzad elevates a charity documentary into something else entirely.

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The setup’s simple. For barely 21 minutes, the film follows lepers in a colony. They work, play, go to school; there’s a wedding. Some are treated by doctors; some are too far gone. A man’s voice offers up facts about it all. Apart from the rotting flesh , this setup is wholly unremarkable. It recalls when a feature came with some shorts. Most of the great ones, like “Blood of the Beasts” and “Night and Fog,” have the same restrictions: under 30 minutes & voiceover.

This film serves its didactic purpose, but layers in increasing complexity. It opens with black leader, a narrator warning, “on this screen will appear an image of ugliness, a vision of pain no caring human being should ignore.” Then, a woman’s almost melting face peeks out from behind her headscarf. We see it with her, in a mirror. Overlapping, a boy reads: “I thank you, God.”

The classroom scene bookends the movie; in between, Farrokhzad’s own poetry brushes against religious devotion and the reality of the disease. If poetry is structure, then it’s the bursts of images: early, diseased faces, one after another; later, afternoon prayers intercut with shots of treatment, or just fingerless hands worn down. If poetry is rhythm and music, then it’s the pace of shots counterpointing the soundtrack, whether poetry, drumming, or a squeaking wheel. If poetry is associative, then it’s in prayers read over images of suffering that seem to confirm God’s not around.

While Farrokhzad directed just this film, she worked before as an editor. That seems to be the root of her craft. Long shots of a man chanting, or a woman pushing her child in a wheelbarrow, get interrupted by bursts of montage. She cuts together images quickly, sometimes with shots of less than half a second; other times, she just watches something unbearable without turning away. But as is often the case, it gets more bearable with time, and finally these people seem like just people. Part of editing is knowing when not to cut away, and part of humanity is knowing when to keep looking. Her real craft is in making it all seem so naturally to fit and flow together, which goes as far as her rapport with her subjects in making them seem fully human.

Since I first saw it, I’ve used this film in every film class I’ve had a chance to teach. Every year, the students show me something new. Parts of it still make me cringe– the mascara scene especially. It raises good talking points, about the gaze, exploitation, and the fiction of documentary. Mostly, it just feels human, especially the final classroom scene, with children who look like old men, acting like little boys.

***

Facets‘ DVD, as always with them, limps to the screen. The print’s not in great shape, but it’s watchable; I suspect it’s the only one available. I can handle a rough print; I just wish their standards for telecine and DVD encoding were higher.

***

Books hold up better: Farrokhzad’s poetry is fantastic. One volume, Sin: Selected Poems, is available through Amazon. I haven’t yet read it, but I have a different translator’s rendition, Rebirth. Rather clunky, it only hints at the emotional force in the writing. And it’s out of print. Instead, I recommend the Jan/Feb issue of American Poetry Review, which has a long selection translated by Meetra A. Sofia. Some are online; they capture the style missing from Rebirth, and make the images more vivid. Farrokhzad became the preeminent 20th century poet in a language with a supremely rich poetic tradition. She died in a car wreck at 32.

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