As this blog has progressed, I have gradually expanded out from my original vision to review the 1001 Films to See Before You Die. But it is good to revisit the book, because it exposes me to so many fantastic and challenging films that I would never know about without it.
The Iranian documentary The House is Black (1963) is one such film. The film focuses on a leprosy colony in Iran, the poverty that causes the disease and especially the plight of those who inhabit the colony. It is not an easy film to watch, unflinchingly showing the physical deformities of these people that so markedly separate them from the rest of society. The humdrum and neglected nature of the existence many of them lead is also shown, a girl looking longingly out a window which seemingly traps her. Sentences her to a disconnected life. A man pacing up and down endlessly, humming to himself. Despite the subject matter though, there is a definite tenor of hope through much of the film. It opens with the quote that “there is no shortage of ugliness in the world” but then states that man is a “problem solver”, arguing that the only way to overcome ugliness in the treatment of those less fortunate in society is through humanity. There are many close-ups of the physical attributes of these lepers, which were confronting to me because I had not seen these kinds of bodies before. We also see various members of the community undertaking exercises in order to help combat the disease, including painful looking exercises to straighten out clenched hands. But all this focus on ‘deformed’ physicality is never used in an exploitative way. Rather these shots are a way in to life in the leper colony, as do the other shooting techniques such as some really nice use of montage. Contrasting a child with one of the older lepers for example.
The House is Black is not just an ethnographic piece or rallying cry for better treatment of lepers. The only film of poet Forugh Farrokhzad, it is a really artistic piece that is very clever in the way it weaves poetry as well as excerpts from the Old Testament and the Qur’an in with the images onscreen. Early we see the lepers giving thanks to God, specifically thanking him (through reading from a text, not sure which one) for the physical attributes provided to them and what these attributes allow them to do. The lyrics of the poem especially mirror the images being shown. The poem evolves throughout the film, giving a range of different perspectives on what the screen is showing. The lyrics talk of the physical form, reflect on the treatment of those less fortunate in society and for a brief period express a longing to escape, both from one’s personal situation and also from an uncaring universe. The sense of hope that I referred to earlier is also seen in the increasing instances of kids featuring as the film progresses. It is horrible to see children caught up in a situation such as this and to ponder what their lives must have been like. But the children in the film are a source of hope, a splash of laughter from a child playing is probably the highlight of the film. Farrokhzad obviously saw this hope too as she went on to adopt one of the children that she connectd with at the colony.
Conronting, but necessary to see, The House is Black is a wonderful documentary. Like many great piences of art, it shines a light on those who have been marginalised, forgotten or neglected by the society in which they exist. I urge you all to check it out whch you can do just here. The subtitles are occasionally white on a white background, but aside from that it is a reasonable quality copy.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
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