‘On this screen will appear an image of ugliness, a vision of pain no caring human being should ignore, to wipe out this ugliness and to relieve the victims is the motive of this film and the hope of its makers’.

The House is Black is Forough Farrokhzad's first and only film.TWITTER/PLTZTZTRK

These words and a jet-black screen open the Iranian Poetess Forough Farrokhzad’s sole excursion into cinema. The House is Black is an arresting film; the montage of documentary footage of the Baba Baghi Leper colony, paired with Farrokhzad’s poetry, pulls us into a world which Farrokhzad presents with empathic candour. In the style of contemporary auteurs of the Iranian New Wave, Farrokhzad’s film is aware of its construction; it acts as poetry in motion, and leaves the audience fundamentally changed. The film reflects Farrokhzad’s own humanist perception of the Lepers in the colony, forged from the raw human connection borne from living among them, eating from their same plates — in fact, she adopts a young boy from the colony at a time when leprosy was highly stigmatised. The film’s surging undercurrent explores the nature of care and human connection and is especially valuable in the throes of the COVID pandemic.

Forough Farrokhzad has been named Iran's most revered female poet. TWITTER/KUBRICKOFFICIAL

The first scene directs us to the ‘image of ugliness’: a leper woman gazes out at us from the reflection in the mirror. We are redirected to this motif of vanity and beauty in later scenes: a woman brushes a young girl’s hair; another applies makeup. Scene transitions, accompanied by her poetic words, creates a motion similar to the rhythmic recitation of Persian poetry. The Leper colony setting is a form of irony which Farrokhzad uses to jolt the viewer. We witness the everyday lives of the film’s subjects: going to school, prostrating in prayer, and celebrating a wedding. These vignettes encourage reflection on the nature of beauty, and the essential humanity at its root.

“Farrokhzad shares with us this world where ill people are closeted away in institutions or a left to suffer on the periphery, a reality which is not far from our own.”

Lepers – in modern terms, patients with Hansen’s disease, – if left untreated, suffer from deformities, ill health and a unique social experience as a result of their condition. Medical professionals who have watched this film have remarked on the fidelity with which the experience of patients with leprosy has been reproduced; the viewer bears witness to the emotional toll of the condition. A key proponent of narrative medicine, where patient narratives are used to inform clinical encounters, is the patient’s biography. As such one could view this film as a tool, for both the lay public and medical professionals in training. We try to understand, we listen intently, we look. Bearing witness to the ‘ugliness’ in the film it is possible, as outlined by narrative medicine researchers Kleinman and Frank, to use the illness narratives presented by Farrokhzad to ascribe meaning and humanity to a disease label.

"A leper woman gazes out at us from the reflection in the mirror."TWITTER/UBUWEB

As a medical student, the sequence that stood out the most for me was the series of scenes set in the hospital, where patients with leprosy were undergoing physical therapy. I think in many ways this is the most visceral part of the film; the voiceover describes in almost graphic detail the medical condition, alongside images of treatment regimes. Farrokhzad shares with us this world where ill people are closeted away in institutions or a left to suffer on the periphery, a reality which is not far from our own. Reflexively we tend to shy away from ugliness manifesting in disease, but the film releases us of that desire to look away and instead replaces our gaze of revulsion with one of familiarity. This is a lesson that is integral to our humanity. It is here Farrokhzad’s political message comes to the fore: leprosy can be treated with the right level of care. The absence of such care from Iranian civil structures in the 60s is what Farrokhzad points to. Of all the potential messages in this film, I think this call to care is the most poignant. It is a call to care for human beings, to transform sight and relocate beauty from its surface to somewhere closer to its human essence, which is inevitably tied to suffering.

“In life there are wounds that, like leprosy, silently scrape at and consume the soul, in solitude—” The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat

A leper boy writes on the blackboard in the penultimate scene. TWITTER/MEDIACITYFILM

خانه سیاه است – ‘The House is Black’, a leper boy writes on the blackboard in the penultimate scene. The film ends with the closing of the compound gates. The Lepers are locked into the compound, or rather, we are locked out. The blackness and degeneracy lie outside those doors, where we reside, in a world where those that require care, the ill, the frail, are neglected and brutalised. Farrokhzad’s film thus frames the ‘ugliness’ of Iranian society, rather than that of the Lepers themselves, and her work offers a reflection which transcends her time. As we witness the black house of our world, the failure of healthcare systems and other public welfare institutions to help the most disenfranchised, The House is Black causes not only an inward reflection on our inculcated notions of ‘ugliness’, but also a re-evaluation of our humanity in the wake of the bleakness which has been uncovered from our own pandemic-stricken society. We leave Baba Baghi transformed.


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