Black House, Brilliant Film: Forough Farrokhzad’s “The House is Black”

Forough Farrokhzad, the Iranian poet who died in a car accident in 1967 at the age of 32, was passionately committed to beauty and truth, a pairing John Keats would understand. In her case, beauty involved poetry, truth-engaged experience, and taken together, they presented problems for her relationship to the culture into which she had been born. Farrokhzad was both inside and outside Iranian society; she was comfortably middle class, educated, married at 17, became a mother, divorced at 19 and lived a life, both in Iran and Europe, that was considered scandalous. She published The Captive, her first book of poems, in 1955 and three more collections before her untimely death. The poems consistently addressed the conditions in which women found themselves; in “Call to Arms,” Farrokhzad chastised Iranian women for remaining “in bonds of wretchedness, misfortune and cruelty,” advising them to “grasp the skirt of obstinacy” if they wanted to break those bonds. In “The Sin,” a poem in her second book, The Wall, published in 1956, she writes about her lover: “Desire surged in his eyes/Red wine swirled in his cup/My body surfed all over his/in the softness of the downy bed.” No other woman was writing poetry like this in Iran in the mid ’50s, especially not a divorced one, and Forough became notorious, a figure as she described herself, “touched with the frenzy of poetry.” In “Conquest of the Garden,” she articulated the artistic and personal space which she inhabited: “I am not talking about timorous whispering/In the dark,/I am talking about daytime and open windows and fresh air.” These positions forced her outside society, but they made her appealing to a subsequent generation of writers and artists, including the filmmaker Shirin Neshat, who has used Farrokhzad’s poem “Window” as the liberating text for one of her films.

Farrokhzad has also been praised by Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami, principle figures in the Iranian New Wave of the ’60s and ’70s. The source of their admiration is less poetic than filmic. It is focused on a 22-minute-long documentary she made in 1962 about the Tabriz leper colony in Azerbaijan called The House is Black. Shot over 12 days, it is her only film and it more resolutely combined her fascination with beauty and truth than anything else she ever did.

To be sure, The House is Black stands as one of the most arresting films in all of contemporary cinema. Arresting, truthful, and ultimately, beautiful. The manner in which she is able to make out of a difficult subject a trail of devastating and captivating images attests to the transformative quality of art and the dignity of the human spirit. The House is Black shows pictures of faces and bodies so ravaged by disease that your inclination, even through the cushions of time and geography and the screen of celluloid, is to turn away. It is a tribute to the quality of her cinematography, her writing and her narrating rhythmic voice that you never do. From the opening sequence of a young women looking in a mirror, her distorted features partially covered by a veil, you are utterly compelled to watch. This compulsion has nothing to do with ridicule or perversity; nor is it a reflection of our contemporary tendency to fetishize the grotesque. The critic Hal Foster has written that for many of us, “truth resides in the traumatic or abject subject, in the diseased or damaged body. Thus body is the evidentiary basis of important witnessing to truth, of necessary witnessing against power.” For Farrokhzad, witnessing the damaged bodies in the Tabriz leper colony became evidence not just of a resistance to power (one section of the documentary does underline the connection between the disease and poverty) but of making a new aesthetic as well.

The sequence of the woman in the mirror sets the film’s tone; slowly and deliberately it inches toward a close up. When it stops, you realize that the young women is looking out at us, as much as she is looking in at the mirror. Her veiled gaze petitions our attention…

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Volume 28, Number 1: Shirin Neshat

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #109, published March 2009.

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