On Forugh Farrokhzad's short documentary "The House is Black"
This essay explores Forugh Farrokhzad’s 1962 lyrical short documentary about a leprosarium in Azerbaijan. I contend that The House is Black marks an important moment in the history of documentary film, despite its relative obscurity. In my assessment of Farrokhzad’s film I hope to: (1) offer a comprehensive textual and structural analysis of the film; (2) locate the film in Farrokhzad’s greater, yet tragically abbreviated, body of work; (3) assess the impact of The House is Black on the much talked about “New Wave” of Iranian Cinema; and finally (4) evaluate the film in the broader field of the documentary tradition. Such an essay, to my surprise, has yet to have been written and widely circulated in the English language >>> Full text (Word doc with works cited)
How Kiarostami Led Me to Forugh
Bill Nichols has noted that most reviewers focus exclusively upon textual analyses and formal consideration of style and structure, whilst ignoring the specific context wherein they encounter foreign films (Nichols 1994: 16). As this essay relies heavily upon my own textual analysis made according to my own assumptions about film, art and the world, and because one of my central claims is that too few critics have considered Forugh’s film, I begin with a short narrative about how I came upon The House is Black. After positioning myself within the context of the distribution of the film, I will introduce Forugh’s life and work, engage in a close reading of the film as a text, and the frame it within the broader contours of the new wave of Iranian Cinema along within the greater tradition of documentary filmmaking.
I stumbled upon Iranian cinema three days back from three years in Africa where I had been teaching English at a community secondary school in an old colonial pine plantation. I had arranged a one-week layover in London en route to New York to re-adjust. I spent my nights in a guesthouse and my days walking around the city - greasy spoons and bridges, the Tate, the Tate Modern, a football match or two...the week is mostly a blur - time to recover and reorient; and yet one evening is particularly clear and crisp in my memory.
Walking past the National Film Theatre of the British Film Institute, a poster caught my attention because of its familiarity. A small boy with white eyes and black skin in a torn, sky blue shirt framed by a bicycle tube and set against an earthy backdrop. The film, A.B.C Africa, was about AIDS orphans. And the boy in the poster looked like any of a dozen kids I had just left in Malawi. I bought a ticket, sat in the back row, watched the film, and then returned to the guesthouse feeling thoroughly ambivalent about the production. I had never heard of the filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami. The program called him an auteur, one of the greatest living filmmakers in the world. Yet based on this film, I remember thinking, the accolade seemed unjustified. Kiarostami shot A.B.C Africa with a pair of handheld mini-DV camera over the course of a ten-day tour of Uganda in which he managed to capture everyday life in a Central African region plagued with disease - no more, no less. At the time, the film struck me as an elegant home-movie at best, and a laconic, irresponsible piece of propaganda (the film was commissioned by the United Nations) at worst. Falling asleep in my guesthouse later that evening I never expected to think about the film again.
Over the next few months, however, something strange happened. The images gathered and arranged by Kiarostami in his brief trip to Africa began to come to me in subway cars, on street corners, on supermarket checkout lines, and even in my dreams. They even began to replace my own, personal memories from Africa. Not a single day would pass, in fact, without one of Kiarostami’s images visiting my mind. By then, I had taken a job at the Brattle Book Shop in Boston where, one afternoon, I stumbled upon the film critic Phillip Lopate’s collection of essays Totally, Tenderly, Tragically. Leafing through the volume, I came upon an interview with Kiarostami, which I read alone in the din of the second floor stacks. Here was Kiarostami speaking about the film Life and Nothing More (which I had not seen, nor even heard of):
You have two types of material in a movie: the kind that is really strong, and maybe has an element of arrogance going with it – and the stuff that is subtle and not smug at all. That’s the kind of material that I’m more interested in…Do I want to emphasize the calamity of the earthquake, or the beauty of Nature and the character of the people? [Lopate: 1998: 352]
I kept reading. Following the interview, in an amendment by Lopate that caught my attention and which I still remember, he wrote: “Taste of Cherry solidifies Kiarostami’s position as the most important filmmaker working today. In art-cinema terms (though Americans don’t know it yet) we are living in the age of Kiarostami, as we once did in the Age of Goddard” (1998: 365). Having felt let in on a secret, and still very much haunted by Kiarostami’s images of Africa, I decided to go out and rent Taste of Cherry that night. It was nothing less than a revelation. I sensed that Kiarostami’s Range Rover meandering its way through the dusty hills outside of Tehran would never allow me to look at cinema in the same way again. That was nearly four years ago. Since then I have taken seriously my studies of Kiarostami’s oeuvre along with the new wave in Iranian Cinema, for which he is considered something of a patriarch. Yet any serious study of Kiarostami or the new wave leads inevitably back to a remarkable woman with unforgettable eyes – the late Forugh Farrokhzad, whose poem “The Wind Will Take Us” not only assumes the title of Kiarostami’s 1999 masterpiece, but whose traces can be sensed in many of the great Iranian films of the past thirty years.
Who is Forugh Farrokhzad?
Forugh Farrokhzad died from head injuries after having been thrown from her jeep when crashing into a brick wall in downtown Tehran on Monday, the 14th of February 1967. She was 32 years of age. Tehran’s literary magazine Sokhan may have best articulated the general response to Farrokhzad’s unexpected death:
Forugh is perhaps the first female writer in Persian literature to express the emotions and romantic feelings of the feminine gender in her verse with distinctive frankness and elegance, for which reason she has inaugurated a new chapter in Persian poetry. Prior to her, female writers... expressed general feelings which had no special feminine characteristics and which were the same as ‘masculine’ poetry... Her untimely death at a time when she was still capable of creating outstanding works is cause for the utmost regret. [Quoted in Hillmann 1986: 132]
Farrokhzad is widely regarded as the greatest woman poet in the history of Persian letters and arguably the finest modernist poet of twentieth century Iran. The undaunted, impassioned, and controversial figure first carved a place for herself among an extraordinary cohort of modernist poets who -- following the lead of the great Nima Yushij -- reanimated the grand tradition of Persian verse. The great English language translator and interpreter of the modernist movement, Professor Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, explained that “for five-hundred years (i.e., the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries), with few exceptions, Persian poets had been surrounded by conventions, precepts, and rules that gradually wore this mighty poetic tradition down to near stagnation” (Karimi-Hakkak 1978: 2). This was, of course, until the post-Mossadeq / pre-Khomayni period when the great modernist poets such as Ahmad Shamlu, Sohrab Sepehri, Nader Naderpur, and Farrokhzad began to revise one of the most opulent poetic traditions in our world’s history.
Regardless of these exciting times, life was never particularly easy for Farrokhzad. As a woman composing poetry about feminine desire and love, she was writing both against the currents of culture, society, and centuries of literary tradition, and without precedent or comradeship. Criticism came fast and furiously. One critic labeled Farrokhzad’s poetry as “crude, unrefined, and undirected” and claimed that she “endeavored to incite women against men, assuming that the ‘massacre’ of men will do away with women’s social deprivations and thus women will be completely free!” (quoted in Hillmann 1986: 85, 84) Of course, it did not help that Farrokhzad’s life imitated her art. She was an adulterous wife, had all but abandoned her child, and frequently engaged in affairs within the close-knit circles of Tehran’s literati -- sometimes partnering with married men, as was the case in her famous relationship with the filmmaker Ebrahim Golestan for whom (it is widely assumed) she wrote the following poem, “My Lover”:
with shameless naked body
stands like death
on mighty feet.
Slanting restless lines
his rebellious limbs
in their steadfast patterns.
comes from forgotten generations
deep in his eyes
a tartar were forever lying
in ambush for a horseman
in the wholesome shine of his teeth
a Berber were transfixed
by the warm blood of prey.
Yet to focus entirely on the sensuous or carnal nature of Farrokhzad’s verse, as many critics and historians are prone to do, is a mistake. If Farrokhzad is one of the greatest of modernist Persian poets, than it is not only because her poetry explores an aspect of human experience hitherto ignored in Persian literature (however important that contribution may be). Instead, Farrokhzad’s greatness extends beyond the realm of the thematic (in this case: feminine desire) and towards something more stylistic: in particular, an innovative and astonishingly authentic personal voice rooted in the tribulations, glories and ennui of everyday life and experience and accented by a profoundly humanistic understanding of the external world. An impassioned, subjective voice had been absent throughout the long centuries of ornate, abstract traditional Persian verse; and so it is this unique voice that Farrokhzad supplies to the cannon - a voice that is most evident in her final volume of poetry, Another Birth. Below are three verses selected verses from the title poem.
This is my lot
This is my lot
Is a sky concealed from me
By the hanging of a curtain
My lot is descending a deserted stairway
And union with something dismembered and decayed.
My lot is a sad walk in the garden of memories
and dying in despair of the voice
that tells me:
I plant my hands in the garden
I will sprout
I know, I know, I know
And in the hollow of my ink-stained hands
The swallow will lay eggs.
I will hang over my ear
Pendants of twin red cherries
And stick dahlia petals on my nails.
The publication of Another Birth conferred upon Farrokhad a certain legitimacy in Tehran’s literati circles. In his 1964 article “On the Subject of Forugh Farrokhzad’s Poetry”, Mehrdad Samadi wrote that “a major achievement of ‘Another Birth’ and subsequent poems lies in the rhythm which the poet has given to her particular language and the manner in which she has harmonized this rhythm with her language, the result of which is the most natural expression in our contemporary poetry” (quoted in Hillmann 1986: 110). Farrokhzad herself also seemed to understand that she was on the threshold of something far greater in her poetry.
In an interview given about 18 months before her death, Hillmann notes that “she expressed regret at having published the Captive, Wall, and Rebellion volumes and asserts that only with the Another Birth poems does she begin to believe in poetry and feel that what she is composing are truly poems” (1986: 61). In a 1964 interview she expressed a total commitment to her craft, “Poetry is a serious business for me. It is a responsibility I feel vis-à-vis my own being. It is a sort of answer I feel compelled to give to my own life... ” (quoted in 1986: 142). Indeed, this is why Sokhan magazine had noted that Farrokhzad’s death was “untimely” -- for it came at a time when she was just beginning to find her own true voice -- a truly great and original voice in the history of Persian letters. The collected poems of Forugh Farrokhzad, therefore, represent not the final output of a master poet, but the promise of a master poet only coming into being.
Amidst Farrokhzad’s development as a poet were brief excursions into other forms of art -- the theatre, photography, painting and filmmaking. As we have already noted, Farrokhzad had a controversial affair with the activist and filmmaker Ebrahim Golestan, whom she worked for as an assistant. The relationship provided Farrokhzad with the opportunity to learn filmmaking. In 1959 she headed to England for a short course in film production, returning to edit Golestan’s production A Fire which chronicled an oil well blaze that raged for more than two months. In 1962, Farrokhzad made her own film: traveling with a small crew to Tabriz, where she spent 12 days documenting life inside a leprosarium. The experience was life changing and marked a crucial turn in her development as an artist. Michael Hillman, Farrokhzad’s only biographer, notes, “Forugh later expressed deep personal satisfaction with the project insofar as she had been able to gain the lepers’ trust and become their friend while among them...
As for the significance of The House is Black, it had the effect of presenting Farrokhzad in a new light to some devotees of modernist literature and other intellectuals previously unconvinced of her seriousness or sincerity as an artist. Hitherto imputing some sensationalism and deliberate attention-seeking to her poetry and life style, the talent and feeling that the film revealed changed their minds. [Hillmann 1986: 43]
The House is Black is now widely recognized as an important precursor to the critically acclaimed New Wave of Iranian Cinema of the 1980s and 1990s. For the filmmaker, writer and dissident Mohshen Makhmalfbaf, it is “the best Iranian film [to have] affected the contemporary Iranian cinema” (quoted in Saeed-Vafa and Rosenbaum 2003: 2). Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing about Abbas Kiarostami and his impact on Iranian Cinema, paused to note the impact of Farrokhzad’s film on the auteur’s body of work and went onto say that “among the sixty or seventy [Iranian films] I’ve seen to date, [The House is Black] is the greatest of all Iranian films” (2003: 2). It is strange and unfortunate, then, that there has been so little acknowledgement and treatment of the film by cinema and culture critics in North America and Europe. One of the aims of this essay, of course, is to introduce Farrokhzad’s masterpiece -- and I believe that the evidence above warrants this label -- into contemporary discussions regarding the nature and history of documentary film and the new wave in Iranian cinema.
To that end, I turn now to The House is Black. I begin not with a reading of the film, but with a writing of it. I believe there are good reasons to begin with a comprehensive treatment of the film instead of an interpretive textual analysis. First, one of the key assumptions that under gird this essay is that few readers have seen this film; therefore, I must find a way to share the content of the film with the uninitiated reader. The writing of the film below accomplishes that important task. Second, this is an extraordinarily rich film whose full effect relies heavily upon juxtaposition and montage.
The sophistication behind the filmic composition is difficult to gauge after one or even two viewings. I have found that some of the most important features of the film only reveal themselves through the writing down -- and therefore -- slowing down, of these images. Third, Farrokhzad was a photographer long before she was a filmmaker and one way to appreciate the beauty and talent of her photographic eye is through a detailed explanation of the image on the screen. In other words, through the writing of the film we are exposed to the sheer beauty of each passing shot. For, in some regards this film (more so than others) is a dramatic collection of moving stills.
Finally, Farrokhzad is widely recognized as the greatest woman poet in the history of Persian letters and perhaps the greatest of all modernist Persian poets. Her verse is central to this film. And only through a writing of the film can we truly appreciate her verse and match it with some of the images that cross before our eyes upon the screen. In a viewing, this verse tends to dissolve or slip away or to be ignored for the sake of the images.
I have no great faith in that obscure and intensely frustrating French post-structuralist literary critic Jacques Derrida. However, he did contend, and I think in this case rightfully so, that writing and not reading and speaking was the single most insightful form of expression and communication. For it is within the writing of things that the world becomes plain and that grammar and syntax become visible. Joan Didion, the great Californian essayist, concurred when she explained that true discovery -- of herself and things and the world at large -- came through the practice of writing them down. In that spirit, I offer you something of an ethnography of Farrokhzad’s classic The House is Black >>> Full text (Word doc with works cited)
Jason Price, Department of Anthropology, New York University.