Background by Prof. Farzaneh Milani:

Forugh Farrokhzad's serious involvement with cinema began in 1958. At the time, she had already published three poetry collections, The Captive, The Wall, and Rebellion; she had married Parviz Shapour, given birth to Kamyar Shapour, divorced her husband, lost the custody of her son, and following an attempted suicide and hospitalization, she had traveled to Italy and Germany for 18 months. It was soon after her return that, in order to earn a living, she started her employment as a receptionist and filing clerk at the Golestan Film Studio. The owner, Ebrahim Golestan detected her talent and interest in the cinema and helped her achieve mastery over the form in a short period of time.
In July 1962, Farrokhzad, accompanied by Doctor Radji, the devoted head of the "Society to Assist Patients of Leprosy" went to Bababaghi leprosarium in northwestern Iran. Shocked by what she saw, she returned to the leprosarium three months later with a crew of five men to make her documentary. She lived for 12 days in this remote colony, twenty kilometers from the city of Tabriz, surrounded by rock-strewn mountain roads. She spent the first few days getting to know the inhabitants of the colony. She wanted to learn about the reality of their everyday lives, and above all, earn their trust and cooperation. And she did.

While there, she also adopted a son, Hossein Mansouri. Unmarried at the time and without the familiar context of a nuclear family, she must be the first Iranian woman on record to become a single parent: a role tragically cut short by her early death in 1967.

The House Is Black has great stylistic affinity to Farrokhzad‚s poetry. Similarly, it is autobiographical. A film of exuberance and compassion, directed by a poet at the height of her imaginative powers, it is a heartfelt ode to all those who deviate from the norm. The socially rebellious director empathized with her subjects. Labeled the "poet of sin" she identified with innocent „sinners". Feeling confined within cultural, political, and familial structures, and having titled her first poetry collection The Captive, Farrokhzad understood the meaning of incarceration. As a member of the community of social pariahs, she knew exactly how it felt to be an outcast, a misfit, an exile in one‚s own land.
Grappling with suicidal depression, she appreciated the struggle of leprosy patients against a condition they had no control over. She, too, was waging a war for survival. The House Is Black, like Farrokhzad's poetry, never settles on a single or singular meaning, never provides one response or solution. It looks beyond polarized perspectives in order to present truth as provisional and situated. The film refuses to map the world based on normality and abnormality, health and ailment, purity and impurity, beauty and ugliness, captivity and freedom. Even the voiceover commentaries on the film's soundtrack articulate conflicting stories that unfold seamlessly into one another. Three distinct narrative voices: the storyteller, the poet, and the scientist contradict, mirror, and illuminate each other. Their subtle interaction adds a dialogical complexity to the film that is much more than the sum of its parts. The tension created by these interwoven tales is a key ingredient in the film‚s aesthetic success. It intensifies its emotional impact. While avoiding the stereotypes of victimhood, bitterness, and pathology, it brings into the open the many possible perspectives on leprosy.
The film presents the patients of Bababaghi in close-up shots resembling stately portraits. It clearly enunciates their personal names: Maryam, Seyfollah, Zahra, Hamdollah, Reza, among others. While it embraces their individuality, it also assures the audience that this is a community like any other, one in which people dance and sing; play music; pray in the mosque; knit; smoke; lounge on benches soaking up sun. They wear makeup; attend school; breastfeed their babies; recite the Qur‚an; get married. The film celebrates their resilience and fortitude. Notwithstanding its grisly subject matter, The House Is Black is a monument to the strength of the human spirit.
The composition of each frame conveys a genuine reverence for the pride, dignity, and self-possession of the Bababaghians. Each scene, each glance, each cut further humanizes them by observing how they subvert the oppressive circumstances of their lives.

The ultimate message of the film is survival; its production is lyrical, its effect surprisingly uplifting. It is a memorable affirmation of the will to live. It is about resilience, rising above the struggles of life, holding on to existence despite the pain it causes. It is about human civility in the face of prejudice and adversity. Passion for life and its pleasures shimmer like rays of sunshine in a murky cave. Living in close proximity to death, the Bababaghians, like their director, are fiercely attached to life. Knowing the true color of darkness, they seek out the sun. The House Is Black won the 1963 grand prize for documentary films at the Oberhausen Film Festival in West Germany. But only a few years after its production, it disappeared from the scene. For over three decades, it was hidden in a purgatory in which no masterpiece should end up. A movie lamenting captivity was itself held captive. But like its creator, The House Is Black refused to be relegated to absence and oblivion. It emerged from years of solitude, traveled through time, and found its audience. Resurfacing, its revival or rather, its canonization, began with a blast. The film was shown at the New York Film Festival in 1997. Its pioneering import acknowledged, it became the subject of numerous studies, articles, and conferences inside and outside the country.

About the author:
Farzaneh Milani is professor of Persian literature and women's studies and the director of Studies in Women and Gender at the University of Virginia.

Coming soon:
"Icarus Reborn: The Life and Poetry of Forugh Farrokhzad."

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