Khâneh siyâh ast has become legendary for four reasons: its qualities as a film; its role in defining the spirit of modern Iranian cinema; its being the first film by an Iranian woman; its being the one film by Forough Farrokhzad, perhaps Iran’s greatest woman poet, who died in a road accident, in 1967, at age 32.
Farrokhzad’s film documents lepers in their quarantined existence on an island. Its images of these individuals, including closeups, make us look squarely at an aspect of reality we might otherwise be inclined to shun. The opening image is of a woman, one of whose eyes is horribly deformed, looking into a mirror as the camera approaches until the reflected image is immense. This gradual movement helps adjust our sight to the “vision of pain.”
In a sense, Farrokhzad has incorporated our impulse to look away into the film by enjoining her images to a recitation of one of her poems (in addition to more conventional voiceover narration). The poem’s beauty acts as a buffer for the harsh images. But the poem accomplishes more besides. Expressing a yearning for freedom, it gives the lepers a collective voice while also reintegrating their perceived ugliness in the world of beauty that we all share and from which they have been materially removed. Farrokhzad’s use of her poem helps restore these souls to what we can recognize as the human condition.
An elastic documentary, The House Is Black pretends no objectivity, nor is everything we see unmediated reality. Like Robert J. Flaherty (Nanook of the North, 1922), Farrokhzad contrives and scripts scenes; her camera extends her sensibility, thoughts and feelings rather than becoming a mechanical recording device. Her film pulsates with humanity. The House Is Black, but Farrokhzad lets a little light in.
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