Milestone Movies : The House is Black (1962)

Iran’s cinema of hope, amid states of repression

by Brannavan Gnanalingham

TA Taste of Cherry, which is about a man wanting to commit suicide in direct contravention of Islamic law, or Jafar Panahi’s attack on patriarchal domination in The Circle. And, if Panahi’s recent arrest in Iran on spurious political grounds is anything to go by, this tension tends to spill out beyond the films themselves.

This filmic complexity can be seen in the Iranian New Wave which started loosely following the release of the 1968 Dariush Mehrjui film The Cow (a film so pessimistic that the Shah’s censors reportedly forced Mehrjui to add on a disclaimer stating that the film’s events could only have taken place before the Shah). The filmmakers of that era ( who would later include Kiarostami etc.) took advantage of a booming artistic scene during the 1960s. The roots of the Iranian New Wave come from Italian neo-realism, the 1940s film movement which sought to show a grimier, ‘realer’ Italy than that had been shown under Mussolini. Formal innovations, like the French New Wave, were not the driving force. Instead cinema became frequently seen as a political tool, similar to other “Third Cinemas” of the late 1960s and ‘70s.

Perhaps the most notable film which influenced the New Wave filmmakers came from a filmmaker who only ever made one film, a twenty minute short film which was ignored in her native country for decades. Forough Farrokhzad is better known as a poet in Iran, a woman whose modernist poetry proved controversial as she was writing from the perspective of a divorced feminist. She died in a car crash in 1967 at the age of thirty-two, but her poetry is considered by many to be Iran’s greatest, though her work was banned in the post-Shah Iran. Her brother, Fereydoun, a prominent actor, musician, poet and opposition political activist was assassinated in Germany in 1992.

Forough’s work was directly referenced by Kiarostami in The Wind Will Carry Us (the title and the centrepiece of the film are from Farrokhzad’s work). More to the point, the influence of her short film The House is Black far outweighs its brief running time. The film can be seen here on Youtube.

The House is Black is ostensibly about a leper colony in northern Iran. Farrokhzad captures the daily life of her subjects – eating, treatment, chores etc. – and this drives the film’s main narrative. However, Farrokhzad also composed the film like one of her poems, and it features an utterly unique rhythm and timbre as a result. The images work as stanzas, and their juxtaposition and progression add in more depth than that found in most films five times the length. The film’s closest heir is the later Armenian masterpiece The Colour of Pomegranates and like that film, the spiritual and the ‘everyday’ jar to create something even more transcendent.

The House is Black features two narrators – one a male voice (her real-life lover Ebrahim Golestan) who is the ‘scientific’ one, and the other, hers, who is the ‘spiritual’ one. Her voice directly quotes from the Old Testament, the Koran, and her own poetry, and her imagery transcends the material situation of her subjects. In the process. she manages to critique a religion which allows people like this to suffer, but to also celebrate the spirituality and true faith of her subjects. She is deeply empathetic with her subjects and never recoils from presenting their situation. In fact, after the film was made, Farrokhzad adopted one of the children in the film.

This humanist vision has carried through to the works of contemporary directors Kiarostami and Panahi. These two directors in particular have a strong neo-realist streak in their films, and like Farrokhzad are deeply political in attacking marginalisation in Iranian society. However, Kiarostami’s work hasn’t had the same political problems that Panahi’s work has had (that’s not to say Kiarostami has had it easy) despite the two ostensibly sharing similar views.

The films of Kiarostami (pictured left) are far more formally challenging, which might explain why he hasn’t attracted the same hostility from the authorities as Panahi. His 1990 film Close-Up, which established his name in the West, was as much a deconstruction of narrative and the objectivity of the image, as it was a sly dig at class, judicial and state apparatuses. In that film, Kiarostami looks at a true story of a drifter who convinces a middle class family that he is the son of the famous film director Mohsen Makmalbaf.

However, he is caught and arrested, despite his motives not being of a pecuniary nature. Kiarostami recreates the events by casting the same real-life people involved in the crime. To further confuse matters, Kiarostami also includes documentary footage of the real-life protagonist’s trial. Kiarostami highlights the mediated nature of cinema – how fiction, recreated reality and reality itself cannot be trusted or delineated, if it is ever mediated by an author or by a camera. Yet Kiarostami, like Farrokhzad is an unashamed humanist – forgiveness, redemption, and love have to exist in order for the ugly human traits to be depicted.

Kiarostami’s Ten had similar thematic preoccupations to Close-Up, treading that same awkward line between poetry and documentary which The House is Black treaded. Ten features filmed conversations within a car, and appears to have no authorial intervention whatsoever. Are we watching actors? Is Kiarostami involved at all? How much truth exists in each shot? Notwithstanding this playful cinematic deconstruction, Kiarostami is also critiquing the treatment of women in Iranian society. However, his formal trickery might have saved him from too much trouble with the authorities.

Panahi however is much more direct in his critique of contemporary Iran. While his philosophical concerns aren’t as complex as Kiarostami (but then again, there are few directors in world cinema today who match Kiarostami), his vision is often more pointed and grounded in the zeitgeist. Panahi was an assistant director to Kiarostami, and his Camera D’Or winning debut film, The White Balloon was co-written with Kiarostami.

The White Balloon tells a simple, neo-realist tale of a young girl who loses her mother’s money and seeks to get it back. She enlists the help of passer-bys and her brother. However, the film ends with a brutal freeze frame, which shifts the focus away at the last moment from the young siblings to an ignored Afghan balloon seller. The latent snobbery in the kids subverts almost the entire proceedings beforehand. Panahi’s anger is unbridled in his Venice Golden Lion winning film The Circle, which attacks the treatment of women in contemporary Iran, but pessimistically concludes it’s all one vicious circle; or the Cannes Jury Award winning Crimson Gold, a devastating demolition of consumerism, classism and bigotry.

Panahi is a much more pessimistic filmmaker than Kiarostami. The latter’s films are very playful in spite of their weighty philosophical concerns, whereas Panahi’s films are very dark – which again, explains the presceution and imprisonment that Panahi is currently experiencingt at the hands of the Iranian authorities. That said, Panahi is no misanthrope, as he, like Kiarostami, consistently show a deep love for ‘ordinary’ humans and those on the margins.

In this way, a direct line can be drawn back to The House is Black. Many of their characters have been maligned figures – Kurds, would-be suicides, petty criminals, women. And while, Kiarostami and Panahi’s characters may not appear as visually confronting as Farrokhzad’s lepers, these are modern day characters who have been scapegoats one way or another. And while for many of them, the house is black, there is hope in all of their films that – like Farrokhzad’s characters – transcendence can exist through film, through language, and through the basic act of expression.

Footnote : Jafar Panahi was supposed to be on the judging panel at last month’s Cannes Film Festival. The immediate cause of the state action against Panahi was his intention to make a film about the rigged election in Iran last year, and subsequent treatment of those who protested. While now out on bail – his family has also been released – he still faces prosecution.