Happy Women's History Month!

Women in Film History - Profile #1

When I took film history courses in college, mentions of women were rare. A few names stood out— Lois Weber, Mary Pickford, Barbara Kopple— but women were noticeably absent, and we discussed them as such. Looking back at the syllabi for my two semesters in film history (yes, I still have them, I’m a nerd), the only film we viewed that was directed by a woman was My Brilliant Career, a 1979 film directed by Gillian Armstrong.

Further along in my college career I started a Women in Film club, and was surprised to find out that there were many, many women in film history that were simply overlooked by textbooks and lore. I remember being completely floored upon reading about Dorothy Arzner, a prominent Hollywood director in the 1930s and 40s (and out lesbian!), who invented the first boom microphone! Surely she should have been in my textbooks.

The discussion of women in film history should go farther than grieving the lack of major female players— though that must be part of the conversation. Remembering and crediting the women who made contributions to our history and art is just as important. So, to celebrate Women’s History Month, each Friday in March I will feature a woman filmmaker and one of their films. See the first profile below.

Forough Farrokhzad (1935-1967)

Forough Farrokhzad was an Iranian poet and filmmaker. Though her life was brief— she died in a car accident in 1967 at age 32— her influence is still felt, especially in Iranian cinema, poetry, and as part of the women’s liberation movement. Her poetry is noted as having a uniquely feminine perspective, though she would have rejected that notion:

“What is important is humanity, not being a man or a woman,” she said. “If a poem can get to that point, it is no longer connected with its creator but with a world of poetry.”

What is true is that Farrokhzad’s poetry often explored women’s sexual experience and turned a critical eye to Iranian society, and that she became an icon of freedom and expression. As a result, her poetry was banned from Iran for many years during the Islamic Republic.

Farrokhzad had an often-tortured existence. When she left her first marriage—which she had entered into at age 16— her ex-husband forced a separation between her and her son, which haunted her for the remainder of her life. She suffered with severe depression, and her unconventional lifestyle and extreme popularity meant that she was under constant scrutiny.

After marrying filmmaker Ebrahim Golestan, Farrokhzad pursued filmmaking, and brought with it the compassion, honesty, and interest in the outcast that she had gained throughout her life. Her 20-minute documentary film, The House is Black, is the result of that, a beautiful glimpse into a career cut short by a tragic death.

The House is Black (1962)

In the opening narration, producer Ebrahim Golestan states that the goal of the film is “to wipe out this ugliness and relieve the victims.” The following image is of a woman, her face deformed by leprosy, looking at herself in a mirror, consequently urging the viewer to look at the subjects with the same unflinching gaze.

Filmed during filmmaker Forough Farrokhzad’s 12 days spent in a leper colony, The House is Black is a poetic, humanizing look at a suffering people, outcast from society. Set to Farrokhzad’s poetry, the film begins as a harrowing look at suffering but ends as a celebration of humanity and resilience as it examines the faith and optimism of a people shrouded in tragedy.

Through her poetry, Farrokhzad expresses the conflict she feels between her own desires to escape her life with the simple joy with which her subjects enjoy theirs, despite their suffering. “Let’s listen to the soul that sings in the remote desert,” she urges, transitioning to a montage of the colony celebrating, dancing, playing games. She never loses sight of the exile the colony has been forced into: “Our being, like a cage full of birds, is filled with moans of captivity, and none among us knows how long he will last.” The images constantly juxtapose beauty and suffering, finding joy in the small things while mourning for a people hidden away. The poetry treats the inhabitants of the colony as things of beauty— doves which, if they were set free, would fly.

In the penultimate scene of the film, a teacher asks “Why should we thank God for having a father and mother?” and then instructs a boy to answer. “I don’t know. I have neither,” the boy replies. The class moves on, intercut with a final shot of the gates of the leper colony closing the people in and ultimately hiding them from view.

"There is no shortage of ugliness in the world. If man closed his eyes to it, there would be even more,” says Golestan in the opening narration. The House is Black pleads with its viewers to look, knowing that act is compassionate in and of itself.

You can watch The House is Black here. Content Warning: Some disturbing images related to leprosy.