When I was younger I was the proud owner of what I thought was the premier comedy album of my generation, Weird Al’s “Poodle Hat”. Though I am still a supporter of Mr. Yankovic, I have come to realize that this album is not even a little bit funny. In fact, it is almost excruciatingly unfunny. The unfunniest song being “Party at the Leper Colony” where Weird Al sings about socializing with a group of rotting human beings as their body parts fall off. Honestly, I had no idea what leprosy was when I was younger. I do now. And it isn’t funny. At all.
I’ll admit that Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House is Black is the only film I have ever seen about this extremely serious disease, but I have been converted into a sympathetic consumer. At only twenty-two minutes long, this documentary is an unabashed and unafraid delve directly into an Iranian leper colony. Nothing is ever hidden. The viewer is exposed to at least one image of every significant symptom of the terrifying disease. For those of you who do not know, leprosy is a bacterial infection that causes lesions, swellings and eventually rots the skin (WebMD). Apparently the disease was a large enough issue in Iran that a female poet decided to pick up a camera and make one of the most haunting and humanistic short films I have ever seen.
The House is Black is separated into two “stories” with a straightforward male narrator delivering the facts about leprosy followed by Farrokhzad’s much more artistic juxtaposing of religion, thankfulness, politics and pain. The aforementioned male narrator stresses more than once that “leprosy is not an incurable disease”, yet all the audience sees is images of human faces with caved in noses, swollen eye-sockets and dead flesh. Children are shown playing in the streets throughout the entirety of the film – perhaps as a way to draw in the sympathy from the audience. While watching the film it is impossible to forget that the camera is inside a colony of lepers. Farrokhzad, who also wrote and directed, edited the action with a very fast finger. She frequently repeats shots that have already been shown multiple times. This includes a doctor scrapping the dead flesh from the foot of a stricken man.
The House is Black was made in 1963. That was almost 50 years ago. It is made abundantly clear that the disease can be cured. Yet, according to BBC News there are still several countries where leper colonies exist. Why? It is said in the film that this disease often follows poverty. In the zones of the most unfortunate sits a relatively dormant disease. But, per usual, these people are often ignored and thrown into colonies. This may have been Farrokhzad’s intentions in being so unaltered. The lepers of Northern Iran were being ignored and shoved into colonies to die in huddled masses. Where was the government? It kind of reminds me of how the poor are treated in the United States today.
Maybe the most haunting thing about the film is the fact that the people being exploited seem to still be grateful. In moments that toe the line of feeling staged, the camera catches the inflicted subjects as they pray and thank God for their life and happiness. I have $65,198 in student loans. Thinking about paying them off makes me want to cry. Then I watched The House is Black. These are men, women and children who are literally dying under the radar yet they are on their knees thanking God for their prosperity?! Situational poverty is a thing, but their situation is an awful lot worse than mine.
Prayer may also be the most complex aspect of the film. As stated before, Farrokhzad was a poet. She takes these prayers and proclamations of thankfulness and stitches them together with images of death, decay and pain. There must be some sort of purposeful criticism toward Islam – maybe even all religion – and the direct contradictions in the teachings of God. Why should these men and women be thankful?
The most seemingly staged moment in the film, other than the ending, takes place near the end in the school. The children are asked to thank God for their parents. The teacher asks a young boy why it is good to have a mother and father. The child answers with a haunting “I don’t know. I don’t have either.” #chills.
Forugh Farrokhzad was a female modernist poet and divorcee in Iran. Needless to say, she was a controversial figure. She lived her life as a strong and independent woman in a place where stronger people have been killed for lesser crimes. I do not know the particulars, but I have a feeling that the government of her home country was not keen on her exposing their poorest, sickest and most needy citizens. To make herself even more of a positive role model for women, after filming The House is Black she adopted a child from the leper colony, Hossein Mansouri.
This is a twenty-two minute movie that will give the audience a lot more than they can probably handle. This is not movie magic. This is human pain and suffering. Farrokhzad does not pull any of her punches. If you do not cry, or at least want to cry, you desperately need to reevaluate your personality.
The House is Black: A